Sunday 12 September 2010

A Useless Generation

This is a picture of a bridge in a place I used to live in the desert called Turtle Ranch. It’s made from scrap wood and metal and leads across a wash that is usually dry but in the monsoon season roars with rainwater from the mountains. The house was built by hand from adobe and mesquite, old glasshouse frames and by a pragmatic attitude that some might call pioneer and others recognise as a mix of 70s ideology, permaculture and a Transcendental connection with nature that Chris Hull talked about in his post on rainwater last week. It had a rough beauty all of its own.

Today we live in different times and different places. The spirit of the enterprise that led many to live closer to the land and to take matters into their own hands has dissipated. “I am part of the most useless generation that ever walked this planet. I’m very good at moving pixels around on a screen… and fixing bikes…” laughed Ben Brangwyn at Transition Norwich’s Unleashing almost two years ago. And though there are amongst us skilled gardeners, menders and darners, people who are fully aware of the consequences of their actions, we live within a time of bourgeois tastes, where shops and services for everything abound. To travel and live in another’s country, on borrowed time, is easy. To downshift and live in a house where everything is chipped, cracked and falling apart is challenging, especially when you are the only one in your street doing it.

Last month, just before our Give-and-Take Day in Bungay, my friend-in-Transition Elinor gave me a night-dress that she had been given that didn’t fit. And I can’t tell you what that felt like to wear something that hasn’t come from a charity shop. No one had worn it before me. It was fresh, clean, and a clear sky blue. It belonged to me utterly.

We live in a culture that loves such moments. And we would be foolish if we didn’t recognise their power, for it builds on our every desire to inhabit the lovely and the new, to escape into a realm far away from the toil and sweat of human existence, the ugliness of the world.

We would be foolish if we didn’t recognise how easy it is to throw things away that break, to ring up and ask someone else to unblock your drains, mend your machines, to clean your windows. To lord over what we control and possess like haughty princesses.

We would be foolish if we didn’t realise all our desires to pull ourselves out of poverty (as most of our families have through history) was a powerful motivating factor in our present materialism. And that to put on recycled clothes and to eat off cracked plates as a necessity meets strong social resistance in ourselves, as well as an instilled fear of humiliation.

We would be foolish if we didn’t face the fact that we like to lead lives that keep us apart from our neighbours, secluded in our fairy towers, no matter what platitudes we utter about community.

Only if we have another kind of attitude, one that matches the idealistic, individualistic 70s can we actually make this Transition voluntarily and with good cheer. In 2010 that’s a planetary awareness and an innate sense of social justice for our fellows. We can’t do this within the consumer dream. Because the cultural aesthetic of the clean and the new and exclusive is too strong. We have to put our values in another dimension entirely and think differently. We have to expand our consciousness in a way that human beings that never done before together. Because engaging in our collective intelligence will be more absorbing, more urgent, more satisfying, a greater work, more completely useful than feeding those desires for individual pleasure and possession. Our attention will shift naturally and we won’t worry anymore about the colour of the wallpaper, or the state of our shoes.

We’ll be too busy making do and mending those broken relationships with the planet. Making bridges across the invisible divides that separate us from one another, with parts we discarded on the dustheaps long ago.

Bridge at Bisbee Junction, Arizona; Give and Take Day at the Chaucer Club, Bungay; Heavenly Blue morning glory.

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