Memorial Day

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

Patrick Leigh Fermor observes in the first volume of his pre-WWII walk-across-Europe trilogy, A Time of Gifts, 1977, the old gods of Germany were driven out by an Englishman, St. Boniface, just a century after St. Augustine had arrived in Kent and performed a similar purge of the ancient Druidic deities.

It is appropriate, therefore, that Pope Francis should have decided to proceed with the canonization of Fr. Juipero Sera so that he might stand alongside his predecessors St. Augustine and St. Boniface in the sainted Pantheon dedicated to the eradication of cultures that now seem possessed of an entirely healthier relationship with the planet than is typically demonstrated in the modern world.

The infrastructure of Christianity still remains embedded in Britain, France and Germany (as elsewhere) but its God is now in the process of similarly being usurped by new deities ensconced in the heavenly clouds of consumerism that have descended, like a noxious gas, across the land.

Box stores have mushroomed alongside the churches, abbeys and cathedrals. These latter may still serve as signs of community, professional reverence, and urbanity while continuing to function as places of worship for diminishing populations of the devout, but their primary purpose is now to act as signs of the past against which the modernity of our current lives, succored by the adjacent temples of consumption, may be measured - or as tourist bait.

In the early twenty-first century, at the very beginnings of the Anthropocene, many of our informational, cultural, commercial and social needs may be attended to virtually, leaving the ritual gathering of sustenance in cavernous, industrial buildings a rare opportunity to experience community in the real world. Yet as we push our carts through Carrefour Plus or Costco, carefully avoiding contact with other trolleys and their prime (human) movers we remain in splendid isolation (a condition now abetted by the availability of self-checkout at many such stores).

We are shopping alone amidst urban and suburban infrastructures that privilege fast point-to-point transit (via trains, planes and automobiles) between centers of employment, education, entertainment, and housing that no longer support the kind of rich multi-layered engagement with the natural and built environments of agriculture, artisanal production and support services that I imagine (Romantically) may have existed in the past. We are increasingly physically and socially isolated from such conditions, cocooned instead in the complexities of making, saving, and distributing money (our abstract means of commodity exchange) - geographically and experientially isolated from the world's workshop in the Middle Kingdom and from the exigencies of factory farming, wherever it is conducted.

The France that I have experienced over the past week, speeding through the vastness of its depopulated countryside now devoted to large scale arable farms, remains studded with erstwhile touch-points of intense (as imagined) environmental, spiritual, social, political and economic interchanges - those medieval villages, towns and cities that now function as metrics of our perceived progress and economically, in part, as tourist attractions.

The pay-off for this expensive, resource depleting tourism is the consummation of one of those actual intense experiences felt in the present but transmitted across time through our historical imaginations - epiphanies that enrich our constrained, contemporary lives.

In Europe, evidence of these complex interdependencies of humans, domestic animals, waterways, pathways, buildings and farmlands exist in isolation, supported now by tourists and those city-dwellers or retirees who maintain cottages in the country, or else as nuclei of villages, towns and cities which have a continued viability and have grown, over time, around their medieval buildings. Remaining in evidence too, although less explicitly, are the networks of political and spiritual power in which these communities originally existed marked by domestic, defensive and administrative structures and commemorative statuary. Today, the sinews of power that run through society are largely hidden: sheathed in a camouflage of faux democratic institutions or hidden behind the media burlesque and, quite simply, because power in an electronically mediated world is manifested in less concrete ways.

Walking through the ancient settlement of Saint Armand de Coly in the Dordogne valley, anchored by its massive abbey, I was reminded that the interdependencies of plunder and redistribution (Karatani's short-hand for the mode-of-exchange that characterized feudalism) can render comparatively benign results of community, compassion and, evidently, spiritual passion. At least this was the inkling I gained walking between the elements of the village now supported by a tourist trade in foie gras, truffles and hand made copper pots, pans and bowls. The simple, unadorned nave of the chapel is an awe inspiring space grounded in a stone floor worn into unevenness by eight centuries of the shuffling feet of Augustinian monks - testament to a powerfully consistent social, political and spiritual ideology.

In the abbey there is a memorial to those of the religious community who lost their lives in World War One; the dead and the missing included the Abbot. Elsewhere in the village is a memorial to twenty or so other souls who lost their lives during the war. The massive die-off of young men during this conflict (still actively commemorated in every community in France) marked the end of the old ways both because there was no longer the male population to support labor-intense, self-sufficient, village-scale agriculture but also because the war marked a tipping-point in the triumph of modernity (heralded by the industrial-scale killing in the trenches) over medievalism, of the overturning of the social, political, military and religious hierarchies that had developed over a millennium and which, it was understood, had all contributed to the apocalypse.

While Europe and many other areas of the world are favored with such concrete evidence of past cultures which can serve as both potential exemplars and warnings of future societal arrangements, in California there is often the sense that there existed a tabula rasa upon which has been inscribed, over the last two centuries, a priori, a triumphant western civilization. In fact, the old spirit paths, the old cosmologies, and the old life-ways of the Chumash were driven out of Southern California by St. Junipero.

Here, the pre-existing human community lived lightly on the land and although M. Kat Anderson demonstrates in Tending the Wild, 2005, that they shaped their environment in subtly advantageous ways, early settlers understood themselves to have arrived in a primordial wilderness sparsely inhabited with environmentally passive, but nonetheless inconvenient, savages.

The remaining physical evidence of the Spanish conquest of California is the trail of Missions along the west coast that were designed to function as the nuclei of an attenuated system of feudal holdings - using the slave labor of the local Indians and the natural beneficence of the land. This arrangement was intended to render the entire enterprise financially self-sufficient.

Of the lives lost in this ultimately genocidal operation there is no record, let alone commemoration, while the chief administrator of the charnel houses is now subject to beatification.

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