WRITING “AFTER THE DEVASTATION”

By Paul M. Lewis

It has been some time since I have written on this blog, and to those who read it on anything like a regular basis, I offer my apologies. What has been keeping me otherwise occupied is working on a novel that I originally wrote several years ago

The history of writing the novel goes something like this. Just before I retired at the end of the year 2006, I had a strikingly vivid dream. It was so powerful, and imposed itself so on me, that it woke me from sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning. I sat up and thought about it, but not wanting to awaken my partner, I went into another room and wrote it down. Basically, the dream gave me the broad outline of the book that I came to write. There are three parts to it, and each part was vividly laid out for me. This is what came directly from my subconscious mind. The characters described come, I suppose, from a combination of my conscious mind and the parts of my subconscious that leak out in ways that are both known and unknown to me. The “I” that speaks its name, that is, this amalgam of the aware and the unaware, the mindful and the slumberous, the cognizant and the incognizant that I normally think of and refer to as “me” is responsible for the detail of the story.

But the question that may legitimately pose itself is this: if I wrote the novel several years ago, why am I only now publishing it? That requires some small bit of explanation. The original writing of it took eighteen months. I wrote every day, and was utterly engrossed in it. The story followed the main outline of the original dream, but I had to create individuals to populate this superstructure, as well as plot, and of course conflict. The conflict was both easy and difficult for me. On the one hand, I have always been hyper-aware of conflict, both in my immediate surroundings and in the wider world. There is never, it seems, surcease of conflict. On the other hand, I have also never liked conflict, and my natural tendency is to shy away from it. Yet, you cannot write a novel without embedding discord, dissension and strife of various kinds within it. So, there is that aplenty in the novel. As an aside, all this reminds me of a story I once read about the great Bengali writer and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. He was spinning a story for his granddaughter, who loved to listen to the various tales he would create just for her. But in this one instance, his story was going on and on, and he was elderly and getting tired. So he began bringing it to an end. However, the granddaughter had other ideas, and each time he would make a move toward an ending, she would say to her grandfather that this or that then happened to the heroine, and so it couldn’t be the end yet. As Tagore later noted, there is no ending a story until the conflict is resolved. Or, I suppose, another way of thinking of it is, the story goes on and on, and it never fully ends. Whatever end we come up with is always a temporary one.

Once the novel was finished, with lots of help from friends, I attempted to find an agent and get it published. However, as an unknown author with an untested novel, no one was willing to take me on. I cannot say that I blame them. The publishing world has changed drastically in the last several years, and continues to change. As a result, I put the novel away for the next few years. It literally sat in a drawer, or in a file on the computer (some of both, actually), until just recently. What happened then was that I was about to turn 70 years old. As that birthday approached, I said to myself that if I am ever going to publish this, to give it a chance to be seen by a wider world than my own eyes, or only by my partner and a few willing friends, I had no choice but to self-publish. And this has been what I have been in the process of doing

Fortuitously, all of this coincided with my partner’s retirement from work. As such, I coopted him (he was more than willing) to make use of his excellent editorial services. We both read through the novel three or four times, depending on how you count, and in the process he made many extremely useful suggestions. I will not say that I took every one, but I did incorporate many of them. And I think, or at least it is my hope, that the novel is the better as a result.

So, I have now submitted the work to the publisher (Lulu.com), and they have just begun to work their own magic. I want to add here too that my old friend and blog-partner, Kevin, who is one of the finest artists I know, was kind enough to agree to create cover art for the novel. I cannot yet say exactly when the novel will be ready, but I am hopeful that sometime in the next couple of months, six at the outside, it will be available.

The novel itself is called After the Devastation, and a brief description of it goes something like this: The year is 2024, and the world is teetering on the brink of global environmental disaster and nuclear war. Nora tells her husband, Aden, she’s leaving to report on a crucial meeting at the new Chicago headquarters of the UN. With the world about to fall apart, this is the last thing he wants to hear. A professor and environmental specialist, Aden understands all too well the risks and dangers involved. But the worst does happen, and the two become lost to each other. In the ensuing years, they lead lives apart in isolated communities without modern technology or the conveniences once taken for granted. Separated and still longing for each other, they both rise to positions of power and leadership in fragments of civilization torn by their own brand of conflict based on religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation and race. They meet traditionalists, doctrinal zealots, outrageous individualists, as well as shamans and those wise in the ways of the world. In the process, each discovers their own intuitive awakening and comes to know and rely on their personal spirit guides. It is a story of political intrigue and magical mysticism, as well as a tale of post-apocalyptic crisis and uncertain future for humanity, riven by its ever-present flaws, but bolstered by its greatest attributes. It poses the questions we ultimately all need to ask ourselves: can we learn from our past mistakes, and are we capable of building a new and better world, even after the devastation?

I have learned a great deal throughout this entire process, and again am enormously grateful for all of the help I have gotten along the way. I can only hope that the novel will live up to my own expectations, as a work that dramatizes and gives life to the enormous environmental issues of our day, to say nothing of the ageless human questions that challenge us all, and that it may serve to remind everyone who reads it of one essential truth – that the earth is not some senseless, inert thing, but has its own kind of consciousness, one that is both other, and greater than, our own.

EARTH: HOW FAR CAN IT BE PUSHED?

By Paul

The earth is alive.  It is a conscious being.  It suffers and rejoices and feels, just as you and I do, just as any animal or tree or other plant does.  That does not mean that it has consciousness in exactly the same way that human beings do.  It is emblematic of our human arrogance, and our ignorance, that we believe that only we have consciousness, that only we can feel and reflect.  That is not so.  All sentient beings, as the Buddhists say, are capable of doing these things, even if we all do them in very different ways.

Human consciousness is brilliant and glorious, if limited most of the time.  Plant consciousness is also limited, but plants are more than capable of feeling joy in the movement of the breeze or the falling rain.  Plants move and sway and feel and breathe, and, in a very real sense, they are quite aware of their surroundings.  They love their rootedness, their ability to continually grow and reproduce, and in cold climates they sleep, bear-like, for the winter months and awake to the warming touch of the spring sun.  They feel a kind of happiness, or at least an exhilaration, in being able to continually grow and produce offspring.  Each type of animal, too, has its own kind of consciousness.  Predators, for example, do not kill out of anger (unless they have somehow been tortured and tormented and rendered “crazy” through pain and confinement), but instead they do so out of a desire to survive and to feed their young.  It is also true that the preyed upon feel fear in the moment of the chase.  They do not, however, feel the same type of fear of death that human beings normally do, but experience it more as a continuation of the cycle of being.

The earth itself has a vaster, more all-encompassing consciousness.  It is quite aware of all of the transitory beings who live and walk and crawl on its body, and has a kind of love for these creatures, made from its own body.  This is why many people feel a natural tendency to refer to the earth as “Mother,” because we can, if we attune to it, feel that love.  But the earth takes what might be called the long-term view of things.  A few thousand, or even a few million years, as humans reckon time, represents only the tiniest fraction of the lifespan of the earth.  As such, the death of an individual insect, or a tree, or a wolf, or a rabbit, or a man, or a woman is not a cause for sadness to the earth.  The earth knows that all life is born, matures, and eventually passes away.  The same is true for its own life, just as it is and will be for the star of our galaxy, the sun, or for our galaxy itself, or for the entire universe for that matter.  There is no escaping this universal law, which all manifest creation must abide by.  Therefore, a great storm, or a fire, or an earthquake, or the eruption of a volcano, which wipes away “all life” in its path is recognized by the earth as part of this unfolding of creation, in a similar way to the death of a rabbit in the jaws of a coyote.  It is not a tragedy (as much as it may seem to be in our eyes), but a continuation of the change that must always move forward.

The earth strives always for balance.  It is balanced in its daily rotation and its revolution around the sun.  It spins for a reason, so that it experiences constant movement and with it an ability to go through its own set of regular changes, those of day and night, winter to summer, year to year, millennium to millennium, age to age.  It could also be said that the earth loved and rejoiced, that it felt something akin to pride even, at the emergence of the first tentative signs of “life” on it.  There is no need to attempt to define when life, as we normally speak of it, began on the planet.  The earth is already – has always been – alive.  What we usually think of as life is merely the culmination of certain processes that lead to movement or reproduction and to a different kind of consciousness of the self.

Initially, this desire to live was mostly manifest in the need to reproduce, first of all non-sexually, and then later through sexual means.  The first bacteria had their own awareness, not self-awareness exactly, at least not in the self-reflective sense in which we usually use that term, but a consciousness whereby they knew they had a desire to keep on living.  Life, again as we normally think of it, was snuffed out more than once in various ways, most of which had to do with the crashing into the earth of fragments of the primordial universe.  However, the evolution of life was strong, and continued to show itself, and eventually to advance and expand.  Life is a glorious reflection of the aliveness of the Divine Spirit, and mimics that ability to go on and on, no matter what.   That is why it is foolish, and yet another example of our arrogance and ignorance, to maintain that there is no other life in the universe.  Of course there is, and its forms are vast and beautiful and almost unending.

Just as any parent has to sometimes discipline unruly children, so too the earth sometimes brings its own brand of discipline to the creatures that it supports.  While it is part of what it means to be alive in the usual sense of that term to grow and to propagate, there is also what could be called a kind of natural selfishness in that desire.  This impetus  is, in fact, so strong that one life form is quite willing to push all other life aside in order to take over, if opportunity arises.  However, the innate wisdom of the earth to maintain balance has so far always come to the rescue in such cases.  Otherwise, one species, or one animal, or one life form, whatever it may be, might utterly dominate all else on earth, leading in its most egregious form to the elimination of the others.  Additionally, the earth knows that life, which has evolved so beautifully and with such incalculable variety upon it, must have that variation in order to continue to grow and prosper.  As such, the over predominance of one single life form on the earth can ultimately result in the death of all other life forms.  This cannot be tolerated, inasmuch as that result could eventually signal the demise of all life forms on the planet, ironically including the life of the one species that had taken over.

This is the predicament in which we, human beings, currently find ourselves today.  And it is not completely unfair to harken back once again to human arrogance and ignorance as a cause.  Even so, as noted above, any life form would do the same thing, any one would take advantage just as humans have, if they had the strength and resources to do so.  It is in the very nature of what is meant by the overpowering urge to grow and to propagate.  There is clearly a kind of selfishness in our desire to exist at all cost.  But again, for the most part, over the course of millennia the earth has been quite able to maintain this balance, with periods of excessive heat, or cold, or long stretches of flooding, or drought maintaining the equilibrium whenever one life form, or a few of them, threatened to take over.  So, too, may be the case today with human beings.

We are unfortunately not nearly as smart as we usually give ourselves credit for.  Or at least our ability to see, and even to imagine, is quite restricted.  By nature, we are barely capable of thinking of our own lifetime – some seventy or eighty years on average – as “the long term.”  Add to that the innate urge to propagate, and we have what is happening on earth today.  Demographers tell us that there are already well over seven billion people on the earth.  It is axiomatic to say that the planet is vastly overpopulated.  On top of all this, we have a great ability to create new technologies, and in doing so, we have pushed back the earlier limitations on lifespan, as well as on our ability to raise and care for offspring.  This combination of too many people, and not caring what their predation causes, has brought us to the brink.  To be more precise, it has brought us, humans, to the brink, though not necessarily the earth.  We do not yet have the power to obliterate an entire planet, as much as it is not inconceivable that such a day could at some point arrive.  But unless we radically change our ways and make new and different choices, it will not be long before the earth, our mother, if you will, will chastise her wayward children.  Imbalance can only be allowed to go on for so long before something must take place that will redress the imbalance.  It is true that humans have evolved beautifully, but we are not the highest life forms in the universe, as we normally think of ourselves.  And the earth is capable of making whatever changes are needed in order to rebalance itself.

In spite of this, all is not lost for humanity’s survival.  Not yet, at least.  The earth is a patient mother, and is willing to put up with wayward children, in a way similar to a mother bear, huge and powerful as she is, who willingly endures her cubs biting her ears and tail.  But she may occasionally give them a warning swat from time to time, just as a reminder not to go too far.  We have seen some of these warning swats already delivered by the earth, although so far with depressingly little effect in the longer term.  Many human beings consider it an impossible leap of faith to think that even animals have consciousness, let alone plants, and there are fewer still who can imagine the earth itself as having a kind of consciousness.

I understand that some may see these views I have expressed as being extreme.  Others may consider them utterly fanciful, or at best symbolic or allegorical.  To me, they are simple, straightforward, and truthful.  However they may be viewed, it seems clear enough that one way to unburden the earth is to lessen the population of human beings inhabiting it.  Let us hope that it will not come to a kind of radical cleansing, due to unpredictable weather patterns that could devastate large swaths of humanity, but that we can do so voluntarily by reducing the number of births.  As is so often the case, though, religions have not been of much help when they preach against and even outlaw reasonable forms of birth control.  It is a travesty, and a sin (to use their own language) to cite books written thousands of years ago, when the planet was far less populated, to justify an outdated belief that people ought not to limit the number of their offspring.  No matter what may have once been the case, these days no one couple should give birth to any more than one child, and the more people who produce no children the better.

Overpopulation is, of course, only one part of a long list of problems.  Overuse of fossil fuels, fracking, and other ways of pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere are others.  What I return to again, though, is the place of the consciousness of the earth itself in the equation.  The earth insists on balance, and balance will be achieved one way or another, with – as it were – or without our cooperation.  Morally, ethically, spiritually, even economically, however, it is our duty to make an all out effort to do what we can to help restore that balance.

Let us remember that humans have lived and bred and dabbled in life here for only an extremely short period.  In “earth time,” if it can be put that way, it is the length of an infinitesimally brief flash of lightning in the summer sky in comparison to the four and a half billion years lived by our mother planet.  We forget this, and mistakenly feel as though we have always been.  But it also behooves us to imagine a time when we might not to be here.  The great Creative Force of life would then have to carve out a new path, some new race perhaps, which might live and grow and prosper and reflect intelligently upon itself.  If that were to happen, all of the great inventions, all of the knowledge gained by science, all the most insightful books, all the deepest thoughts and most inspired art ever made by women and men would be utterly lost.

This is not what the earth wants.  It remains a loving mother, who has so far had compassion on her wayward children, but even the patience of the most loving mother can be pushed too far.  Therefore, the time for us to act is now.

THE MARS LANDING: LONG MAY WE BE CURIOUS

By Paul

The team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has done it again.  This time they have succeeded in landing a highly sophisticated, roving mobile science lab the size of a compact car on a planet located some 154 million miles away from home.  And what a landing it was!  Fraught with complication to a degree that even a tiny error could have put a killer kibosh on the entire multi-year effort, they were nonetheless successful down to the smallest detail.  By chance, coming at a time when millions are simultaneously celebrating great athletic achievement in London right now, it could equally be said that this in its own right is part of the Olympics of American space discovery.   It is a Gold Medal for science, engineering, and generally for intellectual – dare I even say, spiritual? – achievement. 

Even so, the question remains, why (literally) in heaven’s name ought we even to want to send machines, let alone (at a later date) humans, to another planet?  Isn’t it enough that we have messed things up royally here on Earth, and wouldn’t it be wiser if we were to put all our resources and efforts into making things better not just for the life forms residing here (ourselves included, surely), but for the magnificent planet as a whole that we call home?  Indeed, I confess that I was exactly of this opinion in the past, and I will, with your patience, attempt to explain in brief how and why I changed my mind.

I still vividly recall July 20th, 1969.  It was a warm summer evening on Earth when Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon.  A Sunday, in fact, if memory serves me correctly.  I was living and teaching high school in a rural part of upstate New York, not far from the Massachusetts border.  Still drinking alcohol in those days (too much, to be sure), I happened to stop at a favorite watering hole of mine, as chance would have it, more or less as Commander Armstrong was stepping onto the surface of the moon.  The first human ever to have done so.  And what were my thoughts in that bar as he spoke his famous words high above?  Was I proud of this great human achievement?  Was I excited that people had used their great intelligence, not to create weapons of destruction designed to kill one another, but instead to invent a technology that channeled our energy and creativity into reaching out to the universe around us?  I greatly regret to say that was not the case.  My thoughts were entirely earth-bound on that day. I felt nothing but criticism that we had chosen to spend so much money sending men to another celestial body, when there was so much pain and suffering on the one we currently inhabited.  I remember thinking: “We spend millions sending men to the Moon, and next to nothing on the homeless and the dispossessed, on education, or on trying to cure humans of the diseases that kill us in the hundreds of thousands.”  None of which, of course, was any more true in those years than it is now.

If I look back even further into my own personal history, I recognize that I was equally critical of earlier human achievements, those great soaring cathedrals of Europe, for example.  Were they not the Medieval equivalent, in terms of technology and the great expansion of human imagination, to a space flight of the 20th (or the 21st) century?  Instead, all I could think when I first saw them was: how many people suffered and died, while these temples were being created?  And wouldn’t it have been better to spend that money on food for the poor and the dispossessed, on education, or on attempts, however halting they may have been in those days, to cure humans of killer diseases? 

The answer to these questions, I think, can be divided into at least two parts.  First of all, neither can, nor should, humans ever do only one thing.  As a race, we are big enough to attempt multiple creative feats, and we are more than capable of both working on those never-ending quotidian problems that plague us day to day, and have always plagued us, while at the same time setting our sights and our minds on the bigger, the higher, the grander.  Even the Olympics, that great paean to the physicality of the body (and to the mind, as well, it has to be said), uses as its motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” Faster, Higher, Stronger.  These words themselves point to the second part of the answer to our original question of why do any of this “other stuff, beyond our daily needs?   The second part of that answer is, in fact, deceptively simple: it is because human beings not only can do it, but in fact we ought to do it.  It is part of what it means for us to be human not only to take care of the business of everyday life, not only to help others in need, feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless, work for the cure to diseases and to eliminate poverty, all vital and unquestionably great and worthy goals, but it also to strive for what is, if I can call it so, “beyond the merely human.”

And what do I mean by the beyond merely human?   I mean all those things that take us outside of ourselves, that show us that we are capable of dreaming, of imagining, of conjuring not just what has to do with our “daily bread,” the sustenance of our bodies and our immediate physical needs, but that which feeds the spirit as well.  Every age, and every culture, has done this, so why not ours, as well?  What else is art for, except in some way, however imperfectly, to actively participate in the Great Creativity of Life Itself, and in so doing to express in a highly individualized and personalized way what is beyond the life of any one human being?   Science, too, at its best, does the same thing.  Physicists look into the very Mystery of Being, they use their intelligence and their practical know-how to delve into questions such as where do we come from, what is the origin of life, and why is there something rather than nothing?  

Whether I knew it at the time or not, Apollo 11 was following in the giant footsteps of such great thinkers, and so is the aptly named Curiosity, which landed last night (Earth time) on Mars.  This latest attempt is designed to research the origins of life in the universe.  It is an attempt to help us understand where and how life came about.  It is taking us beyond the cares and the duties of our everyday lives, as important and as crucial as they may be, and it is literally lifting our spirits.  We can look up at the sky and, in a sense, see that we, too, are there.  Mystics have known this for millennia, that we are part of the Greater Universe.  But for most of us, it may be enough to realize that some real part of our (intellectual) selves is actually roaming about on the Red Planet high above us.  What better way than this to express our need to look higher, to see farther, to go beyond, to focus our attention on what is greater than any one of us, and to give voice to that curiosity by which we realize we are human, and at the same time, hope that we are also far, far more than that?