“So quero ser livre”. Graffiti in Portugal. Photo by mar. Translation: “I just want to be free”.
In a column in the NYT yesterday, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes:
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the volume the birds around us occupy. I don’t mean the vast migratory territories they mark out over the course of a year. I mean the spatial dimensions of their ordinary lives among us. This is a thought that has been working away in my head for a long time, ever since I saw a red-winged blackbird perched on a cattail and realized that the bird and the wetland in which the cattail was rooted were nearly synonymous. “Habitat” sounds awfully general. It turns out to mean not some willful choice ó the kind a human would make deciding to live in Dallas rather than in Denver ó but a profound correlation. The marsh is who the red-winged blackbird is.
When I watch the birds in our community, I am filled with awe at the fact they are so much at home, and at the same time filled with envy at the fact they are so free.
Klinkenborg claims that humans are the only species that is not defined or limited by place. I’m not so sure. I’ve lamented before the fact that we humans are all homeless, and that the homeless and addicted are the perfect metaphor for all of us living in civilization. We are all lost, looking for home, some place where we belong, and we are all addicted to consumption and debt and the false comforts of civilization just as much as the guy in the alleyway desperate for the next fix of his drug of choice, anything to get out of the pain of really living in this moment, here, now.
I’ve also written before that I would, in a heartbeat, give up everything to be, instead of human, a bird, with the ability to soar into the sky, to live comfortably, joyously, absolutely free, and connected to all the rest of life in my place, and through it connected to all life on Earth, and to live for just five years in ‘now time’ possessed of such unimaginably acute senses and with the intense emotions I believe go hand in hand with sensory acuity.
I once wondered if the homeless people I see in the streets are trying to emulate birds, as if the prison that is our civilization is just too unbearable, and anything — the bitter winter cold and risk of death from exposure, the constant nagging hunger, the disdain and indifference of other people — is better than living in that prison. Not for them the addiction to consumption and property and the other seductions of civilized humans. They are in a way freer than any of us.
But as Klinkenborg says, the birds are the opposite of homeless. They have given up no comforts, no freedom and no connection to others to be at home — in fact they are more comfortable and connected than we could ever imagine being. Birds are home (“the marsh is who the red-winged blackbird is”), and free. We humans are neither.
For our first three million years on Earth we were both. We just recently (thirty millennia ago) gave up our native homes and our freedom because it was the only way our stupid human brains could devise to survive, when the ice rolled in and the extinction of the great mammals left us without food to eat (we had lost the knowledge of how to forage as vegetarians, and the new lands we occupied were ill-suited to this way of living anyway). So we moved to these strange new lands and sacrificed our freedom for the apparent security of massive settlement and catastrophic (monoculture) agriculture, the foundations of civilization. We cast ourselves out of the garden because it could no longer support us.
And since then we have been instinctively longing for the home and for the freedom we gave up in that grim bargain. Our three-million year old DNA, our genetic memory, tells us we are not meant to live a nomadic, homeless existence, disconnected from our true home and place and apart from all other life on Earth. It tells us we are not meant to live a life of slavery and confinement and fear and struggle and suffering, of dependence on others and meaningless work.
It is questionable whether the homeless people in the street have found freedom; they certainly have not found their way back home. There are some who live close to the land, nearly as much a part of it and indistinguishable from it as the redwinged blackbird is from the marsh. But while they may have found some vestige of home, they have not found freedom. In this brave new world we are all dependent on each other, on the imported oil and water that lets us grow our simple, vulnerable foods in places they were never meant to grow, and sell them to others in return for other necessities of life that are not native to this hostile place we wishfully call ‘home’.
The garden we cast ourselves out of is gone, and besides there are too many of us now to fit in it anyway. Perhaps that is why we now look to the stars and long for another world where, maybe, we can find a place where we can behome, and free.
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