Long-time Orion contributor Kathleen Dean Moore wrote to Ben Ehrenreich, author of Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time (Counterpoint Press; July 7, 2020), about topics of creosote-time, the end of endings, and the paradoxical role of writers during these unstable times.
KDM: You wrote Desert Notebooks in the midst of the climate and extinction crises, but before the Covid-19 virus sprang into the world—a cosmically dangerous time, coming when the moral tissue of society is perilously thin. Your book is an invitation to sit with you on a desert ridge, watching the catastrophes unfold from the flawed premises of the “modern” world, as inevitably as logical conclusions. The failure is spectacular. To the extent that we sensed we were on the wrong track but could not imagine another, the failure is shameful. And now here we are. Is this crisis the birth of a new, redemptive paradigm?
BE: That is the question, isn’t it? Because as nightmarish as this outbreak is, putting the world on pause is also an opportunity to see everything afresh, to insist that we not just dive back into the same old death-spiral. Suddenly with cities on lockdown we’re seeing clear skies, air cleaner than most people can remember, the world loud with birdsong. It’s as if the planet were rejoicing at our absence. And at the same time that this virus is revealing all of our society’s pre-existing conditions—the severely uneven distribution, along racial and class lines, of vulnerability to early death—the calls for a hasty re-opening have made the murderous premises of our economic system all too clear. So yes, I think the spectacular failures of this system have never been more obvious. All over the planet people are casting about, looking for other ways to do things. What we come up with, and whether we do it fast enough, is entirely up to us.
KDM: By the evidence of your book, you are a desert philosopher, in the ancient tradition of those who walked into a sere, severe landscape to encounter truths beyond the politically given. What is it about deserts that calls to radical seekers?
BE: I wish I could be a desert philosopher. For the last two years I’ve been living in cities again and telling myself and my friends in the Mojave that I’m coming back soon. I miss the subtlety and clarity of the light, the expanse of the sky, the way the desert forces you to reckon with the cosmos as a place in which human dramas are very far from central. People who don’t know deserts tend to think of them as a place of absence, barrenness, and death, but if you spend any time there and pay close enough attention, you come to understand it as a place that hums with life. It’s very hard to forget that you’re alive there.
Everything carries its past within it, and to the same degree carries the future too. We are not individual and discrete selves any more than the present exists as a discrete and autonomous entity—look and it’s already gone.
KDM: I expected Desert Notebooks to be about the desert or about notebooks, but nope: the book is truly about time. Among all the competing images of time that you offer, the one that intrigues me the most is your analogy between time and the creosote plant that grows outward from a central, original plant by cloning. How does creosote-time work?
BE: Moving to the desert pushed me to think hard about time: those huge night skies and their rhythms, the intimacy of geologic time, the harsh cadence of the seasons. To even begin to wrap my head around that I had to make myself aware of the specific blinders that our own inherited sense of time puts on us, and by that I mean the relationship to time that has emerged in Europe and North America since the mid-18th century. That sensibility, which is very hard to shake off, is always bound by implicit hierarchies: the future stands above the past in the same way that the West stands above the rest of the world and whites stand above other races.
What struck me, the more I read and thought, was that everything about those hierarchies was nonsense. Nothing is ever superseded, much less superior, because nothing is ever self-identical. Everything carries its past within it, and to the same degree carries the future too. We are not individual and discrete selves any more than the present exists as a discrete and autonomous entity—look and it’s already gone. I began to think about time outside of those hierarchies, not in terms of linear growth or directional flow—not as a tree trunk or a river— but as kind of fractal reproduction that happens largely out of sight, as an ever-expanding web of connectedness just beneath the surface of the seen.
Living in the desert I had a model for that kind of growth all around me, in the most common and humble plant in the Mojave, the creosote, which also happens to be one of the oldest living things on the planet. I don’t think this idea is too far off from what you refer to in Great Tide Rising as “the sacred unfolding of the creativity of the world.”
KDM: If your book is a “Roadmap for the End of Time,” let me ask the child’s question, “When are we going to get there?”
BE: Ha! We’re already there, of course. I mean that in two senses. First, that something is clearly collapsing. This path that so much of the world has been on for the last century and a half—we convinced ourselves that it was progress—has reached an end. From here it only gets worse, unless we radically change our relation to each other and to living things. And second, time is always ending in the same way that it is always beginning, that every ending unfolds into a beginning and vice versa all within the nucleus of each moment.
KDM: I’ve always resisted novels that imagine the apocalypse riding on the back of climate chaos. I want novels that imagine what might be if we started over and got it right this time. You write:
“Apocalyptic literature is a form of resistance literature, a coded attempt to envisage some outside in a political present that has become unbearable, even if it means the death of the known world.”
And now I am having second thoughts. What is our work in a morally intolerable time, we writers?
BE: I’m really hesitant to answer in any way that will aggrandize the role of writers, because we are self-important and obnoxious enough as it is. That said, I’m going to self-aggrandize: In secular, industrial societies, we understand writing as a semi-respectable career and imagine writers as rational contributors to a civil discourse. We are nothing of the sort. If we are anything other than hacks, then we are engaging in battles made of the very stuff of the cosmos, battles for the shape and destiny of our world. We can fight those battles with humor and irreverence and a keen sense of our own absurdity, but we cannot back away from them, especially now.
KDM: You see our civilization as “a brutal, gleaming, plasticized absurdity that we will recall less with nostalgia than with befuddlement and wonder that a whole species could consent to live that way?” Look at what a mess we have made of the gifts we have been given, and the arrogance to view it with pride. And the timidity and dullness, to think it is the only way. But these last few months have taught that humans can change, and change fast, in ways that serve the common good.
BE: Yeah, it’s been extraordinary. Not just that everything has changed so quickly, but this strange phenomenon: we’re all isolating ourselves, staying indoors and away from one another, but we’re doing so out of concern for one another. People are afraid of getting sick themselves, but I think most of us have been complying with the quarantine because we know it’s the only way to halt the spread of the virus, to protect our friends and families and everyone else’s too. It may not feel like it, because the anxiety and dread and anger tend to dominate, but whatever else this is, it’s also an act of love on a planetary scale. We will need a lot more of that in the decades to come, and it will involve a lot more than staying home and watching too much Netflix.
KDM: So let me ask, What would the world lose if it lost us and our sorry souls?
BE: I think the universe will be fine without us. I don’t mean that cynically, but I think humankind could do with a lot more humility. I’m hesitant to assign us any central role in this drama. In the book I quote the great French insurrectionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui quoting Pascal, who is actually quoting Giordano Bruno, who is in turn drawing on much older Hermetic texts with roots stretching back to Egypt—this is what I mean by creosotal growth—all of them expressing the same thought, that the universe should be understood as a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose surface is nowhere. An infinite universe has infinite centers. It reflects through all other living things too, and even in things that are not, by our standards, alive. Everything is always singing. Not just us. I think other beings are perfectly capable of hearing that song too, of understanding it, and singing it back with every breath and movement.
KDM: You write about many times when new worldviews brutally exterminated the old, leaving only the smallest, saddest signs, erasing ancient wisdom and disparaging whatever is left. Now that we are completely immersed in the worldview most convenient to radical extractive capitalism, we imagine that this is the only way. The beliefs enable the wreck and plunder, and the wreck and plunder reward the beliefs, and who could get out of that circle? As you brilliantly write, “Only once we imagined the world as dead could we dedicate ourselves to making it so.” Yes, and only once we imagined human beings as selfish and competitive could we dedicate ourselves to making them so. Do you think we are on an edge, like a subduction zone, when one worldview is plowed under and another emerges?
BE: I do believe we’re on the edge. I think my daughter’s life and the lives of most people already on the planet depend on the emergence of a different way of relating to the world. The current worldview is inseparable from fossil energy, from extractive capitalism and the colonial relationships that forged its birth. The eighteenth century’s fantasy of progress thrived as an ideology in part because it appeared to be confirmed by the newly abundant energy, and enormous wealth, that came with coal in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth century with oil. As long as we were free to access the energy stored in fossil carbon, we could imagine that there were no limits to what we could do and no consequences that could not be evaded with some clever technological fix. It’s now very clear that we were wrong.
But we should be careful about that “we”: most human beings had no role in any of this. A very small number have enjoyed great wealth over the last two centuries at the expense of virtually everyone else. A relatively tiny elite has made it clear that they will fight to the death—even if that means everyone else’s—to hold onto the privilege that exploiting fossil fuels affords them. So it’s not an abstract question of creating a worldview. There is a real fight coming, one in which we will have to choose sides. It has arguably already started. A new way of seeing things will be forged in that struggle. It is already being forged.
KDM: Thank you for your book. It’s an important and beautiful book. Thank you for this conversation. I like the way you think. Stay safe, keep on writing. O