Artifice v. Pastoral

Photo: Rebecca Horne

THE OCEANS WERE JUST BEGINNING freeze over and the polar bears were prowling, in this, the hungriest season of the bear year. For the Inuit in the high Arctic, it was one of the last whale-hunting days of the season, and the seas were colder by the day, with bear-paw ice and ice plates forming. The implacable ice, imprisoning waves.

In the home where I stayed, the small son spent hours every day engrossed in a computer game, the character called Spyro. Part of the game included an old man offering to tell Spyro stories. “Stories? Aw, no thanks,” says Spyro, scornfully. “Stories, aw, no thanks,” imitated the child aloud. His grandfather, one of the community’s elders, was a fund of tales: of foxes and men, bears and ice, stories with truths deep within them.

“This is a flight simulator,” enthused one man, showing me the virtual-reality program on his computer. “You can fly over this exact place.” You can, in other words, pretend to be where you already are.

For those younger than about forty, hunting was a lost skill. These generations were forced to go to White (Qallunaat) school, so had no childhood apprenticeship in hunting. Not knowing how to survive on the land, they were dependent on jobs and housing fixed up by the government from way down south, and on store-bought food.

One young man, with no money and no knowledge of the land, tried to go hunting to feed his family. He took his son with him and they never came back. The bodies were found eventually, the son’s face eaten by ravens. This is a stark result of the strange artifice of their lives. Younger people become effectively imprisoned in these tiny, claustrophobic communities, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall is popular. (“We don’t need no education.”) The rates of suicide, violence, alcoholism, and drug use have rocketed.

I asked one Inuit woman how she felt about the land. “I remember it was beautiful,” she said wistfully. The land was still there, a few yards from her door, thousands of miles of land as wide and beautiful as it ever had been but she was weirdly — artificially — alienated from it. Not so the elders, traveling by boat, Ski-doo, or dog-teams. They knew how to hunt, they knew the language of the land, those dozens of distinct words for snow and ice, on which your life may depend. They cherished the freedom of the land, that non-negotiable authenticity.

The elders are less confident of their knowledge now, because of climate change; I was told of an elder who went through the ice and drowned in a place where it never would have happened before. We’re north of everywhere, they say, and the first to feel these changes. “I’m the last man standing, so be careful with me,” says one, in elliptical vulnerability.

Climate collapse has weird echoes of the financial collapse of recent months, and at the core of both is what I’d call the Politics of Artifice. Perverse and cruel, it is an almost unexamined ideology, one which commits itself to the primacy of the fake and declares war on all that is natural.

Conceptually, one could say that a series of artifices has caused climate collapse. Artificial, unsustainable energy use. The artificial present that takes no account of its effects on the seventh generation. The artificial humanism that insists that human activities are supremely valuable while other creatures and habitats have no intrinsic value. The world’s richest nations and individuals have adopted a high-risk credit strategy, over-borrowing from the Earth, taking the wealth of fossil fuels, heedlessly racking up the toxic debts of CO2 in the sky, and addressing the bill to future generations, to the nation of Tuvalu, or to the Inuit. Chief Seattle’s axiom that we do not own the world but borrow it from our children has always been true but has an intense and sudden relevance now in these toxic debts; we have borrowed from our children more than carbon: we have borrowed sky, serenity, and life, and we are barely bothering to apologize for defaulting so grossly on the loan.

The collapse of the financial markets, meanwhile, is index-linked to its own artifice, and having created synthetic “wealth” for a few, it has demanded that ordinary people should pay in real terms. While hundreds of billions of dollars were poured in to rescue the financial market (that peculiar and greedy artifice of credit, futures trading, short-selling, hedge funds, and gambling), the question remains why there is not a similar, immediate amount of money put toward the rescue of the climate, that radiant, generous, and delicate reality.

This is an excerpt from the article published in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion. Purchase this issue, take advantage of our free trial offer ($19 for six gorgeous issues) for the print magazine, or subscribe to the equally beautiful digital edition ($10 for six issues) for the full text.

Jay Griffiths’s books include A Sideways Look at Time, A Country Called Childhood, and Savage Grace, originally published as Wild: An Elemental Journey, winner of the Orion Book Award.


  1. Very poetic writing. Just wish Ms Griffths would have presented some pragmatic solutions to the troubles she goes to such length to express.

  2. Am I the only one who relishes the irony of the author quoting a fictious speech by Chief Seattle in support of authenticity?

  3. yes, I noticed the Chief Seattle “quote”, but thought one critism at a time from me was adequate.


  4. This new “teaser” format must be especially brutal on authors… having to be armchaired by schlepps like me, even before the full piece is posted. Ms. Griffths, I pass no judgment on your work, especially because I’ve yet to read it!

  5. what fictitous quote. he did say we borrow the earth from our children. or the like thereof.
    I loved her line about all the money to bail out the phantom to me paper exchangers of wall street and how much to bail out the o say the air we breath. what’s that pink floyd line about “did they get you to trade your heros for gold” …

  6. Well, no he didn’t. What has been passed around for years as the “Chief Seattle Speech to President Franklin” is a piece of fiction writen by a PBS copy writer in the 1970’s. On the face of it you can tell it is fiction. I mean, the bit about “buffalo rotting on the plains”, or some such. Seattle was a NW Indian, for pete’s sake, what did he know from buffalo? Hey, it is a damned good piece of copy, I’ll be the first to admit, but file it under, “Things we think Native Americans should say.”

  7. Hang in there Plowboy!

    WE all agreee that Griffth’s writing is fine craft, however, using info without verifying detracts from the value of the writing.
    What does Griffth have to say about this?

  8. I edited Jay’s article and informed her about this thread. Here’s what she asked that I post this response:

    “I am fully aware of the controversy surrounding Chief Seattle’s speech, but I refer to it as an axiom, not as a historical document. There is a
    difference of register between a literal quote and a reference to a
    well-known idea which, by cultural shorthand, is associated with Chief
    Seattle. It is in the latter register that I was writing and I’m sorry if it seems I did not make that distinction clear enough.”

  9. The Chief Seattle “myth” for the gullible was written by Ted Perry, a screen writer for the 1972 ecology movie Home.

    It is a shame how people eat up things and don’t check sources

  10. Surely we’ve all had our say by now, anbd should leave the poor writer alone!

  11. Seems folks can’t get past the artifice (or fiction of the statement) to see the pastoral of the piece itself. I hope everyone on this thread can get a full copy of the essay in order to really dig into what is being brought out. The author brings to light vivid examples of our current cultural landscape and ties it to our deep and twisted western roots of “civil”ization and industrialization while she gives examples of how mesmerized and numbed we have become with artifice.

    I found it to mirror my own state of mind at this particular moment in time and even before I read it, I’ve been having many conversations with people regarding the state of our own culture and lack of authenticity.

  12. Chief Seattle speech is not ficticious. It happenned. That’s a fact.
    What is ficticious is the canonical rendering of it, written by a Hollywood producer.
    Since there is no direct -or lengthy- quote from that ficticious document, I decided to accept the author’s use of Chief Seattle concept as valid poetic licence.
    Saludos from Mexico,

  13. Well said Jen -thank you! The fascination with artifice is everywhere, even here after reading this thought-provoking piece.
    I was particularly struck myself by Griffith’s description of people responding to a tragic suicide as if it was a computer game. It is often my experience that people I interact with in the street, in a store, or as a driver, are behaving as if I was merely an obstacle to be overcome in their own private video game. There is no personal interaction, no graciousness, or even plain civility. I’ve also often been amazed at how people in the audiences of live performances behave as if it was TV, with no sense that the artist needs to have some response from them, or that fellow audience members will not appreciate their loud talking-over-the-TV type conversations.
    I fear that our cultural gorging on artifice is at the cost of our social fabric.

  14. Well there, you see? Exactly my point. In our culture (dominant or not) we’re all trained to accept these kinds of alternative versions of reality. That the Native population has also learned it can’t be a shock to anyone, can it? I mean, they veg in front of the tube just as much as any of us do.

    So, in the case of the Chief Seattle speech (and yes Francisco, I’m sure that he gave MANY speeches…not the point though)we have a case of art not just imitating life but CREATING it. This creation is so durable that the man who actually did the creating, the aforementioned screenwriter, campaigned for years to convince people that he made the whole thing up out of whole cloth…until he gave up the effort out of frustration.

    Or, as the Japanese woman sitting next to me on the plane said as we were flying out of SEATAC, over Mt. Rainier: “It’s just like virtual reality.” I wanted to hand her a pithy Chief Seattle quote in response, but I just smiled instead and replied, “Yes it is.”

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