The War of the Senses

In the weeks following the presidential election of 2000, I began to keep a chart, a table of hours spent defending the homeland against the assault of the new administration.

Right from the start, Bush came after the National Forests Roadless Rule, which I and millions of others had spent countless hours on over the previous three years in our efforts to protect the last, farthest stretches of our national forests. Then the contagion spread and spilled. As I tallied the near-daily losses, I felt my life spinning, taking me further and further from hikes in the mountains, from the joys of writing, from community involvement; further from reading for pleasure; and (I could barely even acknowledge this last one) threatening to steal the hours spent with family.

All I had really wanted to do, in escaping from my work in the oil industry to this outback of Montana so long ago, was to leave behind the world of politics and policy and disappear into the senses: to the sound of the Yaak River gurgling and the honking of geese. Is it not this way for all of us in some measure, or are we truly a nation divided, beset by a war of values? Do the boys at Halliburton know what I am talking about when I speak of such things? In addressing them, to what might I compare such a sensation, such a desire? To the bliss of a noncompetitive government contract? To the physical heft of two bags of gold, one held in each hand?

The irony is this: The more I desire to live a quiet life in the garden, the more stridently I find myself called out of that garden. So imperiled are our communities today that activism is not the choice it once was, but a necessity.

IT IS AN EASY THING to forget or overlook or revise or reconstruct, but we were at war before September 11th. Not nearly as much of the rest of the world reviled our affluence and materialism — and our addictions — before as do now; but even then, the hate, the fury, was spreading. Even then, the war was all around us, beneath us, within us: The war of not-paying-attention; the war of taking our many blessings for granted; the war of insensitivity, the war of diminishing passion.

Does anyone still remember what it was like, in the weeks and months after? We were going to come together — not just in this country, but worldwide. In fact, we were together, briefly, united in our grief and shock. We stepped back and questioned our lives. In that stepping back, we asked ourselves, bombers and poets alike, What matters? Does what I am doing matter? Time spent with loved ones was — for a while — everything.

Then came the second war — the flesh-and-bone, bombs-falling-from-the-sky war, the adventure in Baghdad. But beyond the crowing, beyond the bring-it-onism, other quiet and not-so-quiet terrors proceeded. A seniors’ drug prescription “rescue” tucked into a trillion-dollar deficit, which makes life harder for seniors but more lucrative for large drug companies and their stockholders. A Clear Skies Initiative, which increases (invisibly, it’s true) mercury pollution. A Healthy Forests initiative that threatens the only remaining truly healthy forests in the last roadless areas. The privatization of public treasures and legacies; the poisoning of water supplies; the gutting of Superfund clean-up responsibilities; the oppression and disenfranchisement of gays and other minorities; the centralization and near takeover of the media; the boarding-up of public schools, as if in some silent but not-so-secret Great Depression; the shameful charade involving the chief executive’s glib and callous search under the Oval Office desk for weapons of mass destruction — with 13,000 people dead as a result.

Nearly everyone I know, it seems, is angry at our ghost of a government — at a federal government that we have allowed to go AWOL, leaving only a handful of corporations to run the show. This is the biggest government, the most power-mad, heartless-son-of-a-bitch machine-of-a-government this country has ever known, yet the safeguards of government are nowhere in evidence.

Part of me wants to dig in and fight harder, and part of me wants to lie down in the tall grass and love this fleeting world — or rather, our privileged presence in it — more deeply. As if on a ship lost at sea in a storm, I know where true north is and continue tacking for it, trying to keep the senses awake and not deny the horror of the precipice at whose crumbling edge we stand. And I find myself wishing and wanting to work like hell for a leader who possesses not bravado but courage.

Bravery is how you might respond when under relentless or horrific attack: When you hold your ground and fight back. Courage, I think, is different, and harder to attain: To fight when you might not have to; when no one would know the difference.

In these last several weeks, this last stretch, we will all be called upon to serve, and to focus our fear and anger not with traditional bravery and resolution, but with the deeper thing: Courage, that response of the heart.

It’s been a hard four years. Some folks are tired. We could, for instance, choose rest rather than one final redoubling. We could, in the increasing din, choose to step quietly aside and let others voice our fear and anger for us. Or we could step up and join the chorus for change, leaping into the battle for democracy with such force that all of our previous labors will seem like those of hobbyists or dilettantes.

If ever there was a nation at a juncture it is ours. We have lost our standing and respect in the world, earned by over two hundred years of blood and guts and, yes, diplomacy. It is only with humility and pride — the latter not to be confused with arrogance — that we can regain that standing and respect, that position of leadership in the world, as well as on our own soil.

Whichever side of this most dangerously divided of nations, these dangerously dis-united states, the election falls upon, what I hope to capture here, on the eve of this terrifying moment, is how terribly frightened we are. We stand either to regain some of the foundations of our democracy or to cede the future, as if by sleeping proxy, to a tiny cluster of bombardiers, oil barons, and polluters. For four years we have been watching as much of that which we hold sacred is dismantled as if by barbarians: Our educational system, the dignity of decent and affordable healthcare, our clean air and water, our wilderness — as American an icon as anything — and the financial security of our children’s generation. And, in some ways most painful of all, our respect among the nations.

The election of 2004 will come down not to federal deficit fears or intelligence betrayals, nor even likeability. I think it will — and should — come down to the condition and capacity of the human heart — and to courage: The courage to demand something better, the courage to rekindle the senses — our sense of home, sense of place, sense of duty — the courage to awaken.

This nation’s future is not about capturing or not-capturing any one mad-dog terrorist. It’s not even entirely about any one Texan in the White House. Instead, it’s about what is really in our hearts. Are we a nation ready to cede our power completely, with neither check nor balance, to misleading zealots?

FORTY YEARS FROM NOW, young people will be calling upon us to tell them what it was like, in this crucible-forged time when democracy was attacked not just from abroad, but from within. What was it really like, they will ask. They will want to know how close and intense it was, and how we achieved our victory, their victory.

We sharpened our knives, we will tell them. We were frightened, and we were fearless. We chose courage rather than silence. We turned our backs forever on the myth of pure self, on the myth of utter independence and disconnectedness. That myth, we will tell them, was no longer compatible with the genius of democracy.

We were frightened — terrified — of the seeds, the sprouts, of dictatorship arising in our own homeland, we will tell them, but we cut it down, just barely in time, by throwing everything we had at it — body and soul, intellect and intuition, everything. We rose above our fears, we will tell them, and chose action.

It was terrifying, we will tell them. It was glorious.

RICK BASS is the author of eighteen books of fiction and nonfiction, including, most recently, Caribou Rising: Defending the Porcupine Herd, Gwich-‘in Culture and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Sierra Club Books, 2004). In the spring of 2005 Houghton Mifflin will publish his novel The Diezmo.