Where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Where have you been, my darling young one? I've strayed on the side of twelve misty mountains. I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways. I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests. I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans. Been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard. And it's a-hard, it's a-hard, it's a-hard, it's a-hard -- it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.– Bob Dylan
As the one-time would-be reluctant prophet of popular culture might have predicted, this is a troubling time. Many believed in the early sixties that Dylan's “hard rain” was an allusion to nuclear Armageddon; with all the troubles and suffering seen and felt and heard and visited by so many in the everyday world, there looms over and above it all a fiercely vengeful cure. You think things are bad now? Wait until some small group of men in some room somewhere – most likely hiding behind walls of lead – decide to unleash a storm of rain that is truly hard. Then we'll all know what suffering really is.
I have no desire to add my opinion to the many who have tried to get into the head of Dylan and his early protest songs. I'm content to believe the above interpretation, or to believe that this song is more poetry than protest, and as such should be appreciated as moving words that stir up our emotional responses of the truth that we see in the world. In this latter sense this song is timeless; it is but one beautiful expression of the kinds of despair that people in every age and place feel about the world they inhabit. This begs the question: aren't all times “troubling times?” After all, the world has seen genocides, inquisitions, wars, famines, plagues, and many other hard rains. We've made great strides with medicine, development, and equality. Even the threat of nuclear annihilation seems to be not as threatening as it once was (except to those politicians and demagogues who make a living stirring up fear.) So when I say “this is a troubling time,” what makes me feel that the time and place in which I live has a monopoly on gloom?
The short answer is: I don't know. Perhaps the despair I am feeling on this June day in 2010 is exactly the same despair felt by millions of souls from many places and times all over the world. Likewise, perhaps the many people saying we are in a time of unique transformation – whether such visions are rooted in ancient Mayan prophecies, biblical “predictions,” or simple egotism – are similar to those in every land and every age who believed they were (are) experiencing a singular enlightenment not previously known. Perhaps these two questions go hand-in-hand, because it is easy to believe that the most likely way for the global human community to go through a unique spiritual enlightenment is if we are forced to by some type of despair or suffering previously unknown. Are we living it a time of unprecedented despair and the next spiritual enlightenment? I have no rational basis to believe this, but I feel it could be true.
Consider the line “I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.” It is hard for me to believe that when Dylan penned this line a half-decade ago that a “dead ocean” was anything other than a powerful poetic image. Could he, or anyone else, have imagined back then that any of us would ever see something that could be described – even in the most remotely literal sense – as a “dead” ocean? Yet I write this knowing that over the past month, some 23 to 46 million gallons of oil have “leaked” from a geologically stable underground storage vault created millions of years ago into the fragile and living habitat of the Gulf of Mexico, through a hole drilled in the ocean floor by people utilizing our latest engineering technology. Not only am I wondering if now, for the first time in human and perhaps geologic history, we might be forced to see a dead ocean, but we might also be forced to reckon with the fact that if the Gulf (poetically considered an ocean) does indeed die, it will have been our own folly, arrogance, and greed that killed it. That is something that is hard to imagine we could do even with a full-scale nuclear strike.
So perhaps we are in a uniquely troubled time. Perhaps the hard rain has already fallen.
I know that a few million gallons of oil here and a few thousand gallons of chemical dispersant there don't necessarily kill an ocean. But I also know that I don't know that it won't, and more to the point, among all the engineers and investors and regulators and speculators and consumers of oil who made this particular offshore oil well possible, none of them knows that this leak won't kill an ocean. We all act on faith. I know, too, that for some time now oceanographers have been describing “dead zones” in oceans around the world, including a very large one in, yes, the Gulf of Mexico, caused by fertilizer runoff from industrial farms fed by, yes, oil. So it's not as if this spill was made on a perfectly healthy ocean to begin with – this leak might one day be seen as a kind of Dr. Kevorkian prescription to end the suffering of an acutely ill ecosystem. It's also not as if this oil spill might be the only cause of a dead ocean in the world – we may indeed be creating (killing) a dozen of them by a dozen different means.
But this oil leak alone is not what truly troubles me at and about this time. It is but a symptom of something deeper, darker, and more troublesome about what has become of humanity's place in the nature of things. Sure, the oil leak is a profound and perhaps unprecedented tragedy, but it is, in the end, a mistake. Whoops. Before we can fret too much about it, we'll be reassured that our best and brightest minds are on it and will fix it and make sure it doesn't happen again. And a whole slew of wonderful people, who are referred to by the media as “hard-working, ordinary American volunteers,” will come out of the woodwork and band together in a spirit of unity and hope and comb the beaches cleaning up all they can. It's guaranteed that we'll be seeing pictures of these good people in our major newsweeklies, cradling oil-soaked birds as they take them to a nearby shelter for cleaning and rehabilitation. We've seen these images before, of course, and we'll see them again. We'll hear a lot about more strict regulations and new technologies that someone can sell us that will ensure that this doesn't happen again, and relegate any talk about the inevitability of it happening again as we dig deeper and further and into more difficult places looking for our latest oil fix to the lunatic fringe of our media. In the end, maybe we'll all eventually get what BP CEO Tony Hayward wanted when he said “I'd like my life back.” What's a little ol' dead ocean, anyway? We can still find places to farm our fish, build pools in which to swim, and hop on cruise liners to take us to less invaded beaches for vacation.
What troubles me and suggests to me we are in a uniquely troubling time is not our mistakes, but what we consider to be normal. People from all over the ideological spectrum are happy to “blame” BP for this mistake, or Halliburton, or the government, or all big oil companies, or whoever they dislike the most. But very few of us are willing to blame ourselves, to recognize the fact that when we pay people (and corporations, which we've created as fictional “people” with lots of money and little accountability) large sums of money to go all over the world scouring for oil or gas or minerals or coal or uranium, then mistakes will happen. Tragedies will happen. Yes, this tragedy was not only predictable, but inevitable. Just as other tragedies of the modern industrial era were/are inevitable: Bhopal, Love Canal, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, Fermi, Niger Delta, etc, etc, etc. These types of tragedies will happen again and again, no matter how much our politicians talk about “kicking ass” or regulators get beefed up budgets or lawsuits penalize those stuck at the end of the line when the bleeding starts. The truth is, it is all one ongoing tragedy: the tragedy of a people, a nearly global civilization, that has chosen to rape the world for its own comfort. We have chosen to drain from the Earth whatever it is we think we want, without her permission, as quickly as we can, only acknowledging the risk inherent in any one given enterprise but not seeing that on the grand scale we are not engaging risk but inevitable tragedy. And we seem unable or unwilling to choose differently.
Here's what I mean: A few years back, the Ford Motor Company ran an ad campaign touting the wonderful new River Rouge facility they made: A zero-emissions plant that generated its own power, had a living roof, and treated its own waste water. It was a feat of tremendous engineering and dedication, and a symbol of our new “green” future. This amazing factory of the future was poised to pump out some 200,000 pickup trucks a year without creating any pollution. In this campaign, they seemed to be betting (correctly) that very few people would see the fallacy in their claim. Truth is, the 200,000 new pickup trucks per year is but one form of pollution, albeit a form that most consider normal. Aside from the factory in which they were assembled (from parts made in other factories,) these trucks were made of materials mined and excavated from the Earth in risky operations, which were then transformed into many toxic substances, and designed to use perhaps 20,000 gallons of gasoline and other petroleum products to provide some small group of people a means of transportation for a few decades before being cast into a landfill. This is what we might call “normal” pollution – and instead of finding ways to minimize it, our society today is trying to maximize it's production and bring it to the whole world.
Or another example: A few weeks ago, some of my trusted colleagues and friends were lamenting the tragedy (of a different sort) unfolding in the state of Arizona with their recent passage of anti-”illegal” immigrant legislation. Some of my friends, moved by anger at the injustice and a sense of solidarity, decided to go to Arizona to take part in a protest against enactment of this legislation. I applauded their convictions, but was left feeling despair at their actions, for some of them were planning to purchase a ticket on a commercial airline to fly there for this purpose. Some may say that's a necessary trade off – to fight for what is right we sometimes need to make difficult decisions. I agree with that sentiment, but I'm troubled all the same by this sense that I can only call our normalized behavior: we keep acting the same way, trying to solve problems with the same kind of behavior that created them. The reality is that the legislation in Arizona is but a symptom of a deeper problem, a problem that exists almost anywhere you travel in this country. To fight that problem, we don't need to go to Arizona, we merely need to find new, more effective, and more challenging ways of talking to our neighbors and those in our communities who are fearful of change. It is not one particular law in Arizona that needs to change, but our national attitude about immigrants. We need to shift from our current ethos of keeping people separate and out back to our more traditional attitude of welcoming. But instead my friends will fly on an airplane – one of the most oil-intensive ways of getting around – to be a part of a big protest that might grab a few headlines for a spell, but will also be countered by another big protest of people supporting same legislation. Kind of like the “Super Bowl” of justice-oriented politics. Meanwhile, we – all engaged on both sides – continue to support drilling for oil and drilling for more oil and drilling for more oil in harder-to-reach places by purchasing plane tickets. Here we are not talking about a symptom but a root cause – it is in our perceived need to fly around the country trying to make the world a better place that we are actually destroying it.
We will not make the world a better place by trying to make the world a better place. We will make the world a better place, as Wendell Berry has tried to teach us for several decades now, by striving to become better citizens in our local communities, and more responsible stewards of the land on which we live. The old cliché “Think globally, act locally” was as simplistic as any old cliché, yet also contained within it a profound truth.
Our ongoing global tragedy will have come full circle when our children, our blue-eyed sons, literally stand in front of a dozen dead oceans, or perhaps step in the middle of seven sad forests (who among us who has spent any time exploring our land has no conception of what a “sad forest” is?) In the end, Bob Dylan could only ask his darling young one what he'll do now, apparently not having any advice or wisdom to give.
Well, what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son? What'll you do now, my darling young one? I'm going back out, 'fore the rain starts a-fallin'. I'll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest, Where the people are many and their hands are all empty, Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters, Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison, And the executioner's face is always well hidden, Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten, Where black is the color, where none is the number. And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it. And reflect from the mountains so all souls can see it. And I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinking. But I'll know my song well before I start singing. And it's a-hard, it's a-hard, it's a-hard, it's a-hard -- it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.
©2010 by Ken Jones