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Down on the Ground with The Green Fuse and Its Force

by George Sibley

I’m writing in the first week or so of the season of plants here in the Upper Gunnison. Probably old news for you by June, but this morning is the first morning waking up to new leaves on the smaller trees. Yesterday morning, those almost unbelievably green leaflets were still just buds, but yesterday afternoon was “June” all the way, despite being only early May. You could practically hear the buds unfolding. The tall cottonwoods are all still in their reddish-brown catkin stage and won’t go green for a few days yet. The grass has been greening up since the soggy days of late April. The perennial flowers are resurrecting, and the lettuce and spinach and carrots are above ground in the cold frame.

Each month, I constantly think of things I ought to write about in this column – things that make me mad, sad, or glad about where the world is going and how those things reflect on us here down on the ground in Central Colorado. There is certainly no shortage of things to write about. From the national level down to the local level, we’re trying to salvage an economy that may not be salvageable, for only two reasons I can think of:

• One, that we are just used to the way things are even though we know they can’t be sustained much longer; and,

• Two, that a relative handful of powerful entities who have profited immensely from this bloated simulacrum of an economy are not going to allow change until they have squeezed the last nickel possible out of it – and us.

Meanwhile, however, it’s the season of plants here, and while our leaders dither about why and how we can’t really “afford” a green economy for this world we’ve imposed on the earth, the earth’s true green economy is kicking into high gear all around me.

Looking at the trees that still had the look of winter yesterday but today are sporting that almost neon green of the new leaf, a line of poetry runs through my head – “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” The first and best line of an ultimately kind of depressed poem by Dylan Thomas. But sometimes a line of poetry doesn’t need the rest of its poem; it awakens the mind in a way that the rest of the poem just diffuses, and that one line, as Walt Whitman might say, “encompasses worlds” – for me anyway, on a morning like this, ruled by this green barrage.

The force. My waterbug mind, of course, skitters immediately to those neo-imperialist Star Wars movies, and “the force” working behind the scenes there, in its mysterious ways. That “force” is apparently something like having God on your side; “The force be with you,” the Jedi Knights say to each other, on the assumption, I guess, that, if the force is with you, who can stand against you? But since the Star Wars bad guys seem to have been doing just fine most of the time in the “Star Wars” episodes (losing at the end of each movie, but coming back strong for the next episode), I’m assuming the bad guys must also have some “force” to tap into, or maybe there’s just one “force” that is either some kind of a hired gun, or just likes balanced teams.

In any case – I don’t think that warrior’s “force” is the same force as the one that through the green fuse drives the flower. The more I study this incredible planet we live on, the more I suspect that plants are the key to whatever is evolving here.

We speak of “nature” as though everything (either including or excluding us depending on your personal politics) were part of one single “nature.” But it seems to me that there are distinct and basic differences between “plant nature” and “animal nature.” Most basically, plants are foundational to the whole life-on-earth venture in ways that animals can’t be. Plants come onto a barren chaotic planet – earth and fire rearing up rock for wind and water to tear down – and create life by assembling little bits of that chaos: minerals from the rock, carbon from the air, and water, all mixed and cooked with energy from the sun. They’ve evolved from a thin carpet of tough lichens working on bare rock to thick carpets of diverse plant communities that hold the earth together even as they break it down further for ever larger and more complex plants; they raise up 50, 100, 300 feet into the air to comb the violence out of the wind and catch the rain. They give water-cooled shade to counter the dry glare of the sun and generally make the planet livable.

Because they feed us, there would be no “animal nature” at all without plants. And while plants construct the whole foundation for animal life, I find it difficult to imagine any real purpose or meaning underlying animal nature, other than maybe to help keep the natural exuberance of plants under control by eating them. Beyond that – what do we do? What are we good for? We manage – most of the time – to control ourselves (speaking here of all us animals) by eating each other in the Great Daisy Chain of Life, with the tiniest bacterial animals eventually getting it all. And the Great Daisy Chain of eaters and eaten itself is fragile and often gets out of balance, at which point some species or another causes whole regions to revert back to a pre-plant desert.

Aside from not seeming to do much that is “constructive,” the way plants are constructive, we animals also seem to lack the kind of “force” that through the green fuse drives the flower. Human animals conceive of forces outside of ourselves that watch over us, maybe manipulate or otherwise move us as well as measuring and judging us in various ways, but those forces tend to be perceived as external to us. Only occasionally does a Gandhian human being come along who seems to be driven by the same kind of powerful internal force as the green force driving the massive spring unfolding around me today, and our “animal spirits” more often seem to manifest themselves as darker forces driving us apart through greed, fear, and a yearning for some external parental authority.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, by contrast, is not a top-down hierarchy, the way our religions and democracies seem to work (or not) – it’s not the sun, which shone long before plants had started putting it all together down in the muck and sludge of the elemental interface. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower is bottom-up, a true grassroots economy that recycles everything, nurtures diversity from the inside out, and works out its competitions more often in transformations and mergers than in victories and losses.

Barbara Ehrenreich might have been thinking, in her own inimitable way, of this absence of a true grassroots economy and politically organized socoety when she observed in a recent essay that “in most parts of the world, mass unemployment brings the specter of mass social unrest. Not in the U.S., though, where 13 million people have accepted joblessness with nary a peep of protest.” Instead, our unemployed have been encouraged to think of their externally imposed uselessness as their own problem, and to believe that their job now is just the job of finding a job. She concludes: “Job searching is not a job . . . You may be poorer than you’ve ever been, but you are also freer — to express anger and urgency, to dream and create, to get together with others and conspire to build a better world.”

But that requires some bottom-up “force,” working within and through us like that force that through the green fuse drives the flower. Americans actually seemed to have that “force” in the 1930s, the last time we faced a similar economic and social situation – our grandparents literally forced the president to stand behind his words and really attempt to create some semblance of a grassroots society.

Where did that go? Something resembling that kind of force – incipient or residual – seemed to be stirred by Obama last year, but it has since subsided. Now we sit docilely, as is our style, and wait for him to get done indulging and catering to the dark forces running our ungreen world, so he can maybe turn his attention to trickling some magic down on us.

That ain’t gonna happen unless we find it within ourselves to make it happen, the same way the force that through the myriad green fuses is making the glorious mountain summer happen. May that force be with you, and with us all.