As part of my program of self-change and intentionality, I have been spending more time in natural places, more time in reflection, and more time practicing paying attention, really looking and listening and sensing and intuiting what is going on. I don’t claim to have become good at these things, but practicing is now an end in itself for me, and I think I’m getting better.
Most days I commute to the city (Toronto) and most days spend a lot of time in the company of strangers, whether I’m walking, driving, or picking up necessities in the local stores. The contrast of the dreadful human places and faces I see, with those that I see in the forest where I walk, or in my back yard where I run and meditate (or even in some of the Edens of Second Life) is remarkable, and disturbing.
Toronto is one of the more attractive cities in the world, but now it seems to me incredibly ugly. Office buildings and stores are stark and devoid of imaginative design. Houses are crowded together, shabby-looking, and afflicted with a terrible sameness. The grey roads and highways that we have paved over greenspace with are abominable, and they are littered with grotesque poison-belching cars packed together like oversize sardine cans. The spaces we have allowed to recover after we razed them to the ground to make ‘development’ easier and cheaper are now cowed imitations of nature, constantly cut back, infested with invasive species that gardeners deem more attractive than what grew naturally. They would take centuries to return to their natural grandeur through a pace of slow succession that we have no time for, and which we inhibit anyway, so they are awash in weeds and the grim, hardy plants, insects and small animals that thrive in recently-razed monoculture landscapes — the denizens of post-catastrophe.
And after looking into the faces of wild creatures (far away from the city, in places where there is no sign or sound of homo sapiens) the hordes of humans jammed together everywhere also look unsightly, lost, fearful — the word ugly is from the Norse word for fear.
They walk hunched and with effort. They carry far too much weight, and far too little muscle. They spend too much time indoors and too much in the direct sun, and their skin has a pallid, blotched, flabby, exhausted look to it. They work far too hard and far too long. Their faces are strained, even in moments of forced and vulgar laughter. The quiet desperation that seems to define their existence, the constant dreadful stresses that confront them and worry them, sitting relentlessly in the back of their minds, have taken their toll on their appearance and bearing. They wear hideous clothes to cover their mostly monstrous bodies. A teeming, diseased sea of swarming flesh, slaves rushing to do meaningless work to feed their (our) ruinous addictions. I do not except myself from this harsh description. Nor, any longer, do I except the young, who are often now as glassy-eyed, disengaged and filled with anomie as their cynical and exhausted seniors.
When I walk in the woods I encounter many wild creatures, birds, animals, fish, even insects, all of them stunning or at least strangely beautiful. I realize that almost all my photographs in recent years have been devoid of human faces and human artifacts. What has happened to me that I am so repelled by the sights and sounds of humans and all their detritus, yet so attracted and at peace in the company of other creatures, in places where, at least to my untrained eye, no recent human footprint can be seen?
I have no explanation for this. Perhaps it’s a form of reverse speciesism, this loathing for humanity and its wretched fabrications. Perhaps its a revulsion towards its sheer unsustainability, the fact that most people and all of their junk get cast off, discarded without thought, because they are of no use, and are part of no cycle of renewal that will quickly, when they come apart, make them new and beautiful again, naturally. We have become unnatural, and perhaps that is the most damning adjective of all in a universe that is simply, effortlessly, and staggeringly natural. I see wild creatures who coexist with each other peacefully flee in terror at the first whiff of human presence, my own included. I shrug and nod at this — how can I blame them?
When I was young I was awed and terrified by the story of the Ugly Duckling. It made no sense to me, to conceive that a duckling could possibly not be beautiful, or to believe that anything that was grotesque would somehow naturally become aesthetically delightful, or be perceived to be so in some different context. My parents tried another example from nature — the caterpillar reinventing itself as the butterfly — but this simply distressed me more. Should I feel revulsion at caterpillars? What about the fact that most caterpillars become moths? These were absurd teachings, and I discounted them like the religious and political and economic teachings I have tried to make sense of since, without success.
Aesthetics — the study and science of beauty and perception and our response to them — seems to me the ultimate human intellectual arrogance. It is as if the rulers of the world’s most violent nation presumed to declare themselves the arbiters of global peace (oops, bad example). The natural world is inherently beautiful for the same reason it is inherently cooperative and peaceful — because we (all-life-on-Earth) collectively wanted it that way and made it so, conferring Darwinian advantage on the beautiful, the collaborative, and the fit.
No such advantage is conferred in our terrible modern and disconnected human world. And so we get uglier, more competitive and quarrelsome, and more, in every sense of the word, unfit.
This is a problem. If we’re going to make our best effort to make this world (or at least the part of it over which we temporarily hold sway) a better place, it is important that we really care about each other. But how can we care about each other when there are too many of us, fighting over the dwindling resources that have artificially sustained us, and when we don’t like each other, have no appetite or energy to work together, and, too often, can’t even bear the sight of each other?
That’s what’s really ugly.
Category: Being Human
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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