Photographs by Roman Robroek

Promised Lands

Forming a lasting covenant with place

AFTER THE 2008 MARKET COLLAPSE, I spent a couple of unemployed weeks camping around rural Oregon with a friend. Many of the small towns we passed through were boarded up. These were towns I remembered vaguely from childhood drives, former mill towns for the most part, places you’d stop for an ice cream cone and postcard but likely not for the night. One afternoon, on an almost empty tank, we pulled into the only gas station for miles and found it shuttered. We stopped at the single open grocery store for supplies, but its shelves were nearly bare.

At the time, I’d been reading a blog by a guy named Jason Godesky and had become interested in one of his theories about peak oil and the collapse of industrial civilization. Passing those boarded-up buildings, town after town, seemed to confirm Godesky’s theory of an emerging frontier. Oil was once available at an energy return of one hundred to one, he wrote, “a geological savings account of solar energy accumulated over hundreds of millions of years…. Civilization used that energy to close the map.”

By “the map,” he meant anywhere the land had been carved up and claimed, anywhere the land could be accessed, serviced, and exploited by empire. This notion derived in part from the work of the anarchist-philosopher Hakim Bey, who’d published a series of communiqués in the 1980s on pirate utopias and other enclaves of self-governing people, collected in the book T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. “Ours is the first century without terra incognita, without a frontier,”

Bey wrote. “Not one speck of rock in the South Seas can be left open, not one remote valley, not even the Moon and planets.”

Godesky theorized: “In decline, we will see a new phenomenon: the opening of the map.”

This was how a lot of like-minded writers imagined the collapse of industrial civilization playing out: resources will dwindle in rural areas. People will flee to the cities. The empire will contract and implode.

The newly liberated frontier, these writers suggested, might be the silver lining in the shitstorm, a fringe where autonomous zones could be established: enclaves of peaceful self-governance where the refugees of empire could “rewild” themselves as free people.

 

IN A 1942 ESSAY, Simone Weil attributes the condition of uprootedness to military conquest, an evil that persists in the descendants of conquerors who remain strangers in the land their ancestors occupied. That those descendants could relinquish oppressive control of a place, atone for their ancestral sins, and maybe even put down roots themselves is an idea taking hold in some Christian communities, where congregations of “radical disciples” are attempting to rewild their religion. Not all of them use that word, but the gist is similar: the notion that Christianity had been severed from its roots as a love- and earth-based religion, distorted, and made to serve as an accomplice to an evil empire.

Each community of radical disciples has its own method for reconnecting to those roots. In Philadelphia, a group called The Simple Way subscribes to the New Monasticism, a set of twelve tenets, including “relocation to the abandoned places of Empire,” sharing resources in common, and caring for their corner of “God’s earth.” In Portland, Oregon, a faith-based leadership development effort called EcoFaith Recovery draws on twelve-step principles to restore “sanity in the midst of an addictive culture and economy.” In Chicago, a group called Faith in Place hosts conversations on race and the environment, and helps local congregations organize around environmental activism and planting urban organic gardens. A Burning Man–esque traveling Christian ecovillage called the Carnival de Resistance lists such highlights as “cooking for the community without using fossil fuels or electricity” and “receiving the grace of farm produce” and “righteous dumpster catches.”

Christians were not the only followers of Abrahamic religions rising to the occasion of social and ecological collapse. In 2015, Muslim leaders and scholars from thirty countries gathered in Istanbul for a symposium to launch the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. The declaration names a dozen instances in the Koran in which the Prophet Muhammad acted in the interest of the environment. As outlined in the declaration, the Prophet “forbade the felling of trees in the desert,” “established inviolable zones (harams) around Makkah and Al-Madinah, within which native plants may not be felled or cut and wild animals may not be hunted or disturbed,” “renewed and recycled his meagre possessions by repairing or giving them away,” and “took delight in the created world.” In essence, the Prophet established rules of conduct that would enable his people to live sustainably in a particular place, and though it’s easy to glance past the last item in that litany, taking delight in the living world was no less an instruction.

In the fall of 2015, more than four hundred rabbis signed “The Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis,” writing, “As Jews, we ask the question whether the sources of traditional Jewish wisdom can offer guidance to our political efforts to prevent disaster and heal our relationship with the Earth.” They cite Leviticus 26, in which “the Torah warns us that if we refuse to let the Earth rest, it will ‘rest’ anyway, despite us and upon us—through drought and famine and exile that turn an entire people into refugees.”

In Judaism, the concept of tikkun olam, or “world repair,” is broadly understood as activity for the betterment of society. It stems from the notion that people should not wait for God to heal the world but participate actively in its repair. In liberal Jewish activist circles, the term is primarily understood as a prod to social and environmental action—though conservatives critique their reading as loose.

Suffice it to say, holy texts lend themselves to contested readings. I was particularly interested in the radical Christians’ reading of the Bible, because so much blood has been shed in the shadow of the cross. I wanted to know how Christians today made sense of that history. Christianity was one of the driving forces of colonization the world over, yet the radical Christians I encountered read the Bible as an argument against empire. Jesus and his Apostles were ascetic nomads on a crusade for liberation from oppressive systems and for direct connection to God through nature.

“A human being has roots,” writes Simone Weil, “by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.” By this definition, the radical disciples were on the path to becoming rooted. They believed elements of their inherited version of Christianity were toxic, but rather than reject and dispose of their faith, or steal someone else’s tradition, they told a different version in the spirit of rehabilitation.

 

ONE OF THE TRICKIEST PROBLEMS with “living wild” or “going back to the land” is the immediate invocation of oppositional categories that are not easily defined: “domesticated living” or “living separated from the land.” Domestication may be distilled as dependence on the empire, but what way of life is not fundamentally dependent on one system or another? Those who would “live wild” remain dependent on the plant, animal, and elemental entities that sustain them, and although this may be preferable, dependence it remains. It is not possible to live separate from “the land” or from “nature.” It is only possible to imagine that you do. And therein lies a crucial difference between city dwellers and back-to-the-landers: one way of life forces daily reckoning with that essential dependence, while the other supports its denial through abstractions like money, utility companies, and grocery stores.

Still, it can be difficult to disentangle yourself from these categories, so endemic are they to the ideologies of industrial civilization. The binary between the wilderness and the city raises the specter of other false binaries: dependence and independence, wildness and refinement, purity and filth, heaven and hell.

Other creatures don’t appear to have this problem. The cormorant who alights on the dumpster and later touches down on the wetland is not plagued by contradiction or by accusations of hypocrisy from his fellow cormorants. The rain precipitates and falls on us all. To collapse the categories is to acknowledge our fundamental interdependence with all other beings, an interdependence that both comforts and terrifies. To know this inextricability is to dispel the illusion that we have total control over our lives—and to accept that we are in relationship with the world, at the mercy of others who are at our mercy, too.

The foundational myth of the American West relies on the idea of a wild emptiness. The colonizers saw the land as unutilized frontier, predestined by God for their control and cultivation. The journals of Meriwether Lewis are filled with the usual composite of beauty and peril ascribed to the “wild” by colonist eyes. Lewis toggles between endless “scenes of visionary enchantment” and merciless torment by foul weather, sickness, bears, and mosquitoes that “invade and obstruct us on all occasions.”

This view of the nonagrarian landscape as simultaneously alien, dangerous, and untouchably beautiful unfortunately persists today among many well-meaning conservationists. A view that holds us apart from true intimacy—and thus, the capacity to coexist—with our own ecosystems. Lewis’s partner on the expedition, William Clark, pretty much summed it up in commenting on the death of one of their party: “Thus a man had like to have starved to death in a land of plenty.”

My home state of Oregon was widely considered frontier, though dozens of tribes had inhabited it for time immemorial. I’m reminded of a remark the Indigenous anthropologist and historian David G. Lewis made in a talk on Oregon’s history: “Somebody introduced themselves in a meeting as having been here five generations,” he said. “I was thinking, Huh, how many generations have we been here? A generation is about every twenty years? So, probably, a good five hundred generations or so?”

Five hundred generations born and raised and buried in the same homeland, and the Europeans called it “wilderness.”

Five hundred generations born and raised and buried in the same homeland, and the Europeans called it “wilderness.”

I was the first in my family to be born in the state of Oregon. It is the only place that has ever felt like home to me, though given my remedial knowledge of its watersheds, its native plants and animals, its birds—“home” is a bit of a reach. My people have been in the western United States for less than forty years. From there, I track my ancestry east, through the Midwest and the Northeast, to Western Europe, Scandinavia, and the Middle East. I know that one ancestor migrated for reasons of religious persecution, that two fled a civil war, and that for some there were occupations and internal displacements—but most of that history is lost to assimilation. I don’t know when they were last truly rooted in a place or what Promised Land they envisioned. I don’t know who they were before they began their migrations, how they felt upon leaving home, or where the bodies are buried. To me, the frontier is a tundra of intergenerational amnesia.

For those, like me, who are effectively rootless, it is difficult to fathom what rootedness means, or how it might feel to have roots five hundred generations deep, and to maintain those roots in spite of continuous incursion by an occupying force. It is difficult to fathom but worth a shot, and if you are able to imagine it, you might ask: what wouldn’t I do to defend my home?

Whether or not the exodus off the map ever comes to pass, I’ve since grown suspicious of my attraction to the premise. I’ve come to think that terra incognita was, and is, no less a fiction than the map itself. And it’s easy to project whatever you like into the gap: danger, adventure, self-determination, and, most problematically, vacancy. A frontier can exist only in the minds of those who do not call it home, for not one remote valley or speck of rock has gone uncounted by the inhabitants of that place. Any pursuit of rootedness depends on this understanding, on the undoing of the social, spiritual, and mental structures that train us to perceive a vacuum where others make their homes—a “terra” that will not be recovered in our geography but within our own imaginations.

 

 

JAMES AGEE ONCE WROTE that each of our “incommunicably tender” lives is “almost as hardly killed as easily wounded.” The phrase returns to me now as I think about empires, past and current, and their remarkable capacity to withstand wars, coups, plagues, famines, storms, and droughts—often shifting shape, bearing limps and scars, but surviving, sometimes many hundreds of years past their peaks—almost as hardly killed as easily wounded. And I am lulled into thinking that the life I am used to will indefinitely go on.

But as a realist might note, we are almost as hardly killed as inevitably killed. The body is finite. Eventually and without exception, every body dies, and this is true of empires, too. Our contemporary empire depends on the smooth functioning of intricate networks that are far more vulnerable than anyone who likes to sleep at night wants to know—shipping, agriculture, heat and shelter and water—but every once in a while some archaic force rears up and wakes us to their fragility. Extreme weather arrives, or pandemic, almost anything to interrupt the supply chain—and we are forced to reckon with our dependence, like tyrannical children who’ve made one too many demands on their beleaguered mother and find themselves suddenly cast out into the elements. This is old news to much of the world, where steady supplies of food and water and electricity and the uninterrupted functioning of governments have never been the norm. But even in the so-called overdeveloped world, we are feeling the tenuousness of all we take for granted. In the United States, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and Maria provided stark demonstrations of that tenuousness, and for many people who survived those storms, the collapse has already come; life will never return to what it was.

The supply chain breakdown I witnessed in rural Oregon in 2008 was by no means conclusive evidence of our empire’s collapse—it was evidence of a wounding, not a mortal blow—but that wounding did reveal core vulnerabilities in the system. It is one thing to understand those vulnerabilities in the abstract, and it is another to experience them firsthand, on an empty stomach, with an empty gas tank.

 

IN THE WINTER OF 2013, Todd Wynward and Peg Bartlett were living in the mountains of northern New Mexico, in a rustic yurt without plumbing. Todd had driven into Taos to re-up on supplies, but when he reached the gas station he found a line stretching down the block, dozens of cars long. As he drove past them, he slowed and watched a physical altercation play out between two men at the pump. When he reached the grocery store, the lot was overflowing. Inside the store, forty to sixty carts waited in each lane. He wondered what the hell was going on. Someone explained that winter conditions had prevented trucks from delivering natural gas to the area, so people were without heat and had tried to rely on space heaters, which then collapsed the electric grid. One missed shipment had plunged a sizable town—known for its rugged and self-sufficient population—into chaos.

In light of this experience, Todd began to come to terms with the inevitable collapse of infrastructure and, as he puts it, “embrace the unraveling.” He and Peg moved to downtown Taos, into a dilapidated, seventy-five-year-old adobe hacienda with seven fireplaces and twelve rooms. In 2015, they founded the Taos Initiative for Life Together (TiLT), a Mennonite-based intentional community. TiLT members describe themselves as a “parallel society existing within the dominant consumer culture of North America.”

If we imagine that our civilization is already in collapse, the question we are faced with is this: how, then, shall we live? The question is derived from Peter 3:11, used essentially as shorthand for one’s response to certain inevitabilities. We know for certain we will one day die; how, then, shall we live? Knowing what we know—knowing, as Peter writes, that “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat.” Now that you know “all these things shall be dissolved,” he asks, “what manner of persons ought you to be?”

The chaos in Taos that Todd encountered in 2013 had inspired panic buying and hoarding, but it had also mobilized locals to band together to set up hot-meal stations, donate firewood and blankets, and go door-to-door checking on the elderly. There will always be predatory outliers, but when the chips are down, human beings demonstrate time and time again that they are wired for cooperation. Todd began to view the collapse of infrastructure as both a threat and an opportunity. He turned his attention toward the Transition Town movement and how he might help Taos and the surrounding area live as if the inevitable had already happened.

The Transition Town movement was born in Ireland in 2004, when a teacher named Rob Hopkins assigned his class the task of applying permaculture principles to the problem of peak oil. His students generated the “Energy Descent Action Plan,” proposing how their town in West Cork could produce food locally, limit waste, and become energy independent. In 2006, Hopkins took this idea back to his hometown in South West England and formed Transition Town Totnes, a charity focused on resilience through peak oil and climate change. In essence, where the empire is most damaging and vulnerable, those in the movement propose transitioning to more resilient and sustainable alternatives. For example, if large-scale agriculture and shipping are vulnerable to peak oil and extreme weather, a community could transition to growing organic local food. It sounds simple, but it’s hard to pull off in practice. Still, hundreds of communities all over the world are trying.

Put bluntly, one of the greatest barriers to realizing energy independence is our addiction to stuff—to having what we want whenever we want it. It may be true, as some rewilders say, that it’s easier to jump off a structure that is standing than a structure that is collapsing. But so long as the structure stands, most people will—in ignorance or out of fear or habit—return to its eaves when the rain arrives. This is why some people I’ve spoken to doubt very much that consciousness raising will create lasting change. Change will come when the collapse of our current way of life demands it. Communal subsistence living inevitably results in periods of discomfort and strained relationships, and so long as warm beds and Netflix and grocery stores exist, most people will return to those comforts when the going gets tough. That’s why Todd Wynward believes that “if it’s just up to us, we’re fucked,” that spiritual conviction is required to bridge the divide.

“Despite our professed values of love and peace and justice,” Todd writes, “we compulsively make choices that are unfair, unjust, and unhealthy for our world. We need serious help, and cannot do it alone.”

In 2015, a small Mennonite press published Todd’s book Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, and it includes several commentaries on addiction (such as “Christianity is captive to corporations. God calls us to break free of our addiction to ecocidal behaviors”). Todd was using the addiction-recovery model to describe how Christians in the global North might repent of their insatiable consumption habits. Todd calls this addictive illness “affluenza,” which he defines as “extreme materialism and consumerism associated with the pursuit of wealth and success and resulting in a life of chronic dissatisfaction, debt, overwork, stress, and impaired relationships.”

 

 

Christians are already familiar with the second of the twelve steps—surrender to a greater power—but their addictive illness, Todd felt, needed to be addressed with the fourth step: Conduct a searching and fearless moral inventory. “We are repulsed by the idea of raping nature, but our voracious standard of living demands that the raping continue,” he writes, likening the circular logic of addiction to sin, to the Apostle Paul’s lament, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

It occurred to me that the TiLT house was also a kind of halfway house: a place where a person might escape captivity, admit powerlessness, and purge dependencies to live again in “right relationship” with creation. In addition to the moral inventory and calls for selfless service, overcoming isolation through community is one of the core tenets of the twelve-step model. Studies have shown that addictions thrive when people feel isolated—unlike shame or punitive exclusion, community can help people with addictions overcome.

What are we doing when we conduct a searching and fearless moral inventory? We shine a light in the shadows, acknowledging what was denied, becoming acquainted with estranged parts of ourselves and our histories. We are, in other words, making a home in ourselves. And what are we doing when we turn to the community for support, when we offer the community our service in return? We are making a home in others. We are practicing interdependence.

To develop a relationship with the water we drink, the food we eat, the people on whom we depend, our own psyches—these activities are inherently revolutionary, in direct opposition to the isolation, distraction, and individualism on which the market economy thrives. Intimate relationship is a way of making a frontier a home. But it is less a form of homesteading than a shifting of perspective: these connections were always there; we just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, permit ourselves to feel them.

 

OF ALL THAT MOSES brought down from the mountain, the commandment to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy is, to me, the most instructive. In addition to a day of rest, Leviticus 25 provided for a sabbatical year—one year in every seven—in which agriculture was abandoned, and for a year of jubilee—one year in every fifty—in which debts were forgiven, enslaved people freed, and repossessed lands returned. This jubilee would zero out the accounts, level class stratification, and serve as a culturally imposed limit to growth.

Roughly twelve thousand years ago, at the dawn of the Holocene, the world began to warm and the primary environmental limits to human population growth were greatly diminished. The Ice Age ended, making both sedentism and agricultural dependence possible (thus, the formation of cities). This is where our trouble started, according to a lot of people. But if you look at cultures that remained relatively stable through that period and did not exceed their means, you’ll find that most of them observed culturally imposed limits to growth.

Limits to growth aren’t necessarily a moral proposition, but they certainly are pragmatic. As four hundred rabbis promised in their 2015 open letter on the climate crisis, “If we refuse to let the Earth rest, it will ‘rest’ anyway, despite us and upon us—through drought and famine and exile that turn an entire people into refugees.”

Rewilders have proposed different methods for living sustainably in the wilderness of the Anthropocene, for “undoing domestication” and “fostering biodiversity,” but most of their methods come down to commitment. Committing to the health and wellbeing of a particular community and bioregion, and in so doing, overcoming their estrangement from the land and getting to know their home.

The Christians’ word for this is “covenanting.” I asked the theologian Ched Myers what it meant to “covenant” with the land.

“It’s like a marriage,” he said. When you form a covenant with a person or a place, you take a stand, and that person or place becomes the locus of all your work. “Making a covenant with another person is about committing to them,” he explained, “not just until they’re no longer useful, or attractive, or titillating or interesting, but committing to that person as an expression of limits. I’m going to focus my energy relationally in this covenant because life can flourish within it. The kind of life that sits at the dying person’s bedside. The kind of life that endures the worst of the other.”

 

TODD WYNWARD thinks that “sin” is one of the most poorly understood concepts in Christendom. He traces its roots to a Greek verb, hamartanein, an archer’s term that means “to miss the mark.” He told me that sin was originally understood as a lifestyle, as opposed to an isolated personal transgression. To live in sin was to live out of step with creation, in violation of God’s command to “serve and keep” the Garden of Eden. The Bible, in its original language, makes no mention of hell, but it frequently mentions heaven’s fiery inverse, a smoldering trash dump on the outskirts of Jerusalem called Gehenna. It was an actual place, Todd explained. A place Jesus used as a metaphor for where we’d wind up if we didn’t repent of our sin. Almost any industry could serve as a path to the smoldering trash heap. I thought of fracking, and the lake of fire it sometimes summons to our kitchen faucets. I thought of burning tar sands and aerial shots of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Then, unbidden, came a memory of tall evergreens shading the banks of the Nehalem River, and how it feels to stand on a beach on the Olympic Peninsula, watching gray-green waves batter the sea stacks. It didn’t occur to me in the moment that these were images of home, my personal vision of paradise, but they did give rise to a question.

I asked Todd what his image of God was, and his response seemed a feat of clairvoyance.

He said he imagined an ocean: he’s a drop in the ocean, and evil constitutes a few drops, too, but mostly the ocean is love.

Maybe the Promised Land only ever existed in the promise itself. The promise to stop running and put down roots. To know the stone and valley in all their earthly beauty and imperfection. To nurture that which nurtures you. To help one another find a way home.

 

Excerpted from Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World, due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in July 2021.

 

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Lisa Wells is a poet and nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, Granta, The Believer, and n+1. She lives in Seattle and is an editor for The Volta and Letter Machine Editions.

Comments

  1. “How do we make a life at the end of the world?” That’s the wrong question. It should be, “How will you die at the end of the world?” How do you want to go out? Embrace and accept your imminent end. Die with your compassion for humanity intact and minimize your suffering. You chose how to live, now choose how to die when the time comes. It will be very soon.

  2. This is a scenario of religion that I could possibly embrace. Several points in this excerpt gave me hope. The false idea of frontier, because everything has been occupied before. Modern christianity’s embrace of consummerism and addiction to material wealth instead of being part of this earth. The author’s thoughts on sin as “missing the mark”, “sin was originally understood as a lifestyle, as opposed to an isolated personal transgression”. The author is right that no one, or civilization lives forever. How shall we then live?

  3. This is a beautiful piece, so thought-provoking. It encourages me to see how our Jewish and Christian religious heritage can be recovered and restored to us. There is so much beauty, truth, and wisdom in our religious heritage, and we need all of these qualities desperately at this time of so much hopelessness.
    We are living in a time of millennia fear. Our lives are coloured by this fear, and guilt too.
    I am currently rereading Paul Tournier’s book “Medicine of the Person ? ” (not entirely sure of the title since it was originally published in French, but it has been translated into English). Paul Tournier was a Swiss General Practitioner, and Christian who worked with his patients by encouraging them to make a rigorous, honest self examination before God. This self examination was a condition for identifying individual life problems, BEFORE getting to work on changing one’s personal lifestyle. The kind of personal… development Tournier was writing about required some kind of community to support people in their daily lives, and their attempts to solve their… sinful (lifestyle) practices. Without community, commitment by people to each other, altruism, this kind of change is not possible. I believe that what Tournier was talking about in his book, written in 1940 is what Lisa Wells is talking about above. What we do to ourselves… we also do to others, and to our environment ?
    In “The Messiah”, there is a quote from Isaiah that goes “All we like sheep have gone astray ; we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” That says it pretty well, I think…

  4. Thank you, Debra. I hadn’t heard of Tournier’s work. I look forward to finding it.

  5. Wonderful piece. For those interested, here is a community of Rewilders: http://www.SeminaryoftheWild.com It starts with the reconnection to Earth, then one’s connection to all aspects of one’s psyche, then a reencounter with a wilder Christ archetype and, finally, a wild discernment of “how then shall I live.”

  6. I would caveat on the treatment of sin, in that Eve/Adam’s sole transgression introduced death: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom 5:18-19) The upshot is that when we sin we break both covenant with God, the land, and each other.

    A thoughtful article, Lisa, and in many ways in accord with deeply conservative Christian movements that reject materialism and steward the land communally (such as anabaptist intentional communities). There is room here for conversation and cooperation though our view of God and Scripture may differ.

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