Derrick Jensen: Against Forgetting

By Derrick Jensen, for Orion

Last night a host of nonhuman neighbors paid me a visit. First, two gray foxes sauntered up, including an older female who lost her tail to a leghold trap six or seven years ago. They trotted back into a thicker part of the forest, and a few minutes later a raccoon ambled forward. After he left I saw the two foxes again. Later, they went around the right side of a redwood tree as a black bear approached around the left. He sat on the porch for a while, and then walked off into the night. Then the foxes returned, hung out, and, when I looked away for a moment then looked back, they were gone. It wasn’t too long before the bear returned to lie on the porch. After a brief nap, he went away. The raccoon came back and brought two friends. When they left the foxes returned, and after the foxes came the bear. The evening was like a French farce: As one character exited stage left, another entered stage right.

Although I see some of these nonhuman neighbors daily, I was entranced and delighted to see so many of them over the span of just one evening. I remained delighted until sometime the next day, when I remembered reading that, prior to conquest by the Europeans, people in this region could expect to see a grizzly bear every 15 minutes.

This phenomenon is something we all encounter daily, even if some of us rarely notice it. It happens often enough to have a name: declining baselines. The phrase describes the process of becoming accustomed to and accepting as normal worsening conditions. Along with normalization can come a forgetting that things were not always this way. And this can lead to further acceptance and further normalization, which leads to further amnesia, and so on. Meanwhile the world is killed, species by species, biome by biome. And we are happy when we see the ever-dwindling number of survivors.

I’ve gone on the salmon-spawning tours that local environmentalists give, and I’m not the only person who by the end is openly weeping. If we’re lucky, we see 15 fish. Prior to conquest there were so many fish the rivers were described as “black and roiling.” And it’s not just salmon. Only five years ago, whenever I’d pick up a piece of firewood, I’d have to take off a half-dozen sowbugs. It’s taken me all winter this year to see as many. And I used to go on spider patrol before I took a shower, in order to remove them to safety before the deluge. I still go on spider patrol, but now it’s mostly pro forma. The spiders are gone. My mother used to put up five hummingbird feeders, and the birds would fight over those. Now she puts up two, and as often as not the sugar ferments before anyone eats it. I used to routinely see bats in the summer. Last year I saw one.

You can transpose this story to wherever you live and whatever members of the nonhuman community live there with you. I was horrified a few years ago to read that many songbird populations on the Atlantic Seaboard have collapsed by up to 80 percent over the last 40 years. But, and this is precisely the point, I was even more horrified when I realized that Silent Spring came out more than 40 years ago, so this 80 percent decline followed an already huge decline caused by pesticides, which followed another undoubtedly huge decline caused by the deforestation, conversion to agriculture, and urbanization that followed conquest.

My great-grandmother grew up in a sod house in Nebraska. When she was a tiny girl—in other words, only four human generations ago—there were still enough wild bison on the Plains that she was afraid lightning storms would spook them and they would trample her home. Who in Nebraska today worries about being trampled by bison? For that matter, who in Nebraska today even thinks about bison on a monthly, much less daily, basis?

This state of affairs is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s harder to fight for what you don’t love than for what you do, and it’s hard to love what you don’t know you’re missing. It’s harder still to fight an injustice you do not perceive as an injustice but rather as just the way things are. How can you fight an injustice you never think about because it never occurs to you that things have ever been any different?

Declining baselines apply not only to the environment but to many fields. Take surveillance. Back in the 1930s, there were people who freaked out at the notion of being assigned a Social Security number, as it was “a number that will follow you from cradle to grave.” But since 9/11, according to former National Security Agency official William Binney, the U.S. government has been retaining every email sent, in case any of us ever does anything the government doesn’t like. How many people complain about that? And it’s not just the government. I received spam birthday greetings this year from all sorts of commercial websites. How and why does have my birth date? And remember the fight about GMOs? They were perceived as scary (because they are), and now they’re all over the place, but most people don’t know or don’t care. The same goes for nanotechnology.

Yesterday I ate a strawberry. Or rather, I ate a strawberry-shaped object that didn’t have much taste. When did we stop noticing that strawberries/plums/tomatoes no longer taste like what they resemble? In my 20s I rented a house where a previous resident’s cat had pooped all over the dirt basement, which happened to be where the air intakes for the furnace were located. The house smelled like cat feces. After I’d been there a few months, I wrote to a friend, “At first the smell really got to me, but then, as with everything, I got used to the stench and it just doesn’t bother me anymore.”

This is a process we need to stop. Milan Kundera famously wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Everything in this culture is aimed at helping to distract us from—or better, help us to forget—the injustices, the pain. And it is completely normal for us to want to be distracted from or to forget pain. Pain hurts. Which is why on every level from somatic reflex to socially constructed means of denial we have pathways to avoid it.

But here is what I want you to do: I want you to go outside. I want you to listen to the (disappearing) frogs, to watch the (disappearing) fireflies. Even if you’re in a city—especially if you’re in a city—I want you to picture the land as it was before the land was built over. I want you to research who lived there. I want you to feel how it was then, feel how it wants to be. I want you to begin keeping a calendar of who you see and when: the first day each year you see buttercups, the first day frogs start singing, the last day you see robins in the fall, the first day for grasshoppers. In short, I want you to pay attention.

If you do this, your baseline will stop declining, because you’ll have a record of what’s being lost.

Do not go numb in the face of this data. Do not turn away. I want you to feel the pain. Keep it like a coal inside your coat, a coal that burns and burns. I want all of us to do this, because we should all want the pain of injustice to stop. We should want this pain to stop not because we get used to it and it just doesn’t bother us anymore, but because we stop the injustices and destruction that are causing the pain in the first place. I want us to feel how awful the destruction is, and then act from this feeling.

And I promise you two things. One: Feeling this pain won’t kill you. And two: Not feeling this pain, continuing to go numb and avoid it, will.

From Slate:

This essay was originally printed in the July/August 2013 issue of Orion. Request a free trial issue of Orion here.

23 thoughts on “Derrick Jensen: Against Forgetting”

  1. It is my joy to report that while reading this, just a few minutes ago, a male owl started sounding out from up in a tall tree somewhere outside and above where I sit. I’ll take that as a good sign 🙂

    Yes, the baseline has crashed, and those of us who know and care are holding a vigil all the time, wanting nature to be given a chance to come back. And realizing we need to willing to resist the beastly machine that is killing it, her, our mother. And that we are not alone, there are many other hearts feeling this too.

    Acknowledging the pain is essential – as well as befriending it so we can channel its energy…. or, as was a slogan in feminism in the 80s: Don’t just agonize – Organize!

    1. Well said, Kali. We do hold a vigil all the time. Adjusting our actions is sometimes also difficult, and we offend ourselves with our resumption of careless consumption and ignorant complicity in the problem. Being mindful and informed about the destruction of Earth’s beautiful liveliness takes a strong soul. And to be able to accept oneself after facing the truth of it, one must then be ever vigilant according to Gandhi’s maxim.

      It’s a hard, Saturnian time. Those of us who are able to advance in our yoga, must look to the possibility of change. And this must happen in life, not online. Never was there such a reservoir of wasted action, aborted plans and broken wills than there is plugged into the internet. As we unplug and become more aware, the necessity for our action will become obvious. By then, some of us may be equipped make a contribution.

      Whatever action is taken to truly move us sedentary humans into action to save any vestige of the planet we once knew, the groups who take that action must contend with the widespread incompetence of the least powerful and the systematic indifference of the most powerful.

  2. hello good people,i write green resistance style poetry and would like to share my work-any suggestions on mags or small press publishers to send to.thanx!

  3. Here in Nebraska there are three Indian reservations. One elderly Omaha man wrote a poem about the loneliness of modern life. He said that at one time the skies were black with birds. When they were migrating, the sun was blocked for days. Insects drowned out their song. All the birds sang in harmony and it was beautiful to hear. Now, with all the birds that were imported because someone decided it was a good idea to have all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare over here, there is a cacophony because the new birds don’t know the songs. He said it better than I can.

  4. I think the strategy is to take a baseline then improve on it, thus if there are 100 animals of a species in an area, provide the means by which they can increase to 150 and so on.

  5. Well, it is August 7. In the last two years we have expanded the baseline for the following bird species at our house. Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Cardinals, Mockingbirds, Eurasian Collard Dove, Downy Woodpeckers, Pileated Woodpeckers, Mourning Dove, Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee.

    A single Eastern Bluebird house provided space for a single pair to produce four nests in a single season.

  6. Wake up – yes. Remember – yes. Mourn – yes. Feel the pain – yes.

    But hold on to the vision of joy in your heart. Spread that flame. Because a revolution can only grow on rising expectations.

  7. I feel the burning coal everyday when I look at my beautiful grand children and wonder if we will soon become radiation refugees. I have a small, biodynamic farm in the hills above the ocean and the birds and bees are less but constant. I talk to them and nurture the wildness that feeds them and grow plants that are habitat. I try not to till and grow plants in strange,willy-nilly colonies that seem messy but are so productive. I thought I would die here and my ashes spread on my beloved Big River Beach and now that certainty is gone. We are going to Sacramento next week to oppose Fracking in California. I will never give up.

  8. Until the environmentalists are willing to deal with the issue of Geo Engineering and how its affecting all life on this planet,your movement will have no power and no relevancy.They are blocking out the sun friends!! It wont matter how much you conserve or”Get in touch with nature” if all of nature is contaminated by these “solar Radiation management programs”
    If we do not deal with the geo engineering issue and especially this global aerosol spraying via these 1000’s of jets,all of environmentalism is a hoax and a a sham.

    1. Hi Brian. In fact, it’s critically important for everyone to get in touch with nature. If no one knows what they’re losing, what motivation will they have for fighting geo engineering, as you call it. Consciousness of nature and the will to challenge ignorant destructive norms like rampant CO2 and aerosol emissions go hand in hand. That’s like telling someone it’s pointless to kick their cocaine addiction because they also have cancer.

  9. As usual, Derrick, you made me cry. Thank you. I do not want to run out of tears, or anger, or pain.

  10. Decline baselines are a major reason most people are unaware that trees all over the world are dying from absorbing air pollution. They did not used to fall over by the millions, even in storms. When I was growing up, I never heard of a tree falling on a house, a car, or a person – now it happens routinely. Power outages are more frequent and last longer because branches fall on the lines. Epidemics of insects, disease and fungus attack plants that are weakened by troposopheric ozone. It’s invisible, but highly toxic to vegetation; and the background level is inexorably rising. see links to research:

  11. I don’t believe the situation is ever going to improve, all the time there are 7 billion and more people on the planet, all trying to live a long and comfortable life.

  12. I studied American History at Uni,I remember the pictures of Native Americans following the buffalo.Now virtually all the totemic creatures are endangered.And if they are,so too,are the less glamourous ones.The native American way of life swept away,the culture disappearing,a d with it the lessons we might have learned.A phrase from an American novels preface has stayed with me ..
    When the legends die,the dreams end.When the dreams end,there is no more greatness.

  13. I remember as a child driving in a car at night and longing for the place and time when the fences would stop and the more wild spaces would begin. There used to be places that had no fences. There used to be huge wetlands full of red winged blackbirds. I remember no hawks during DDT and later when hawks returned. I remember seeing dogs poisoned by farmers left dying and paralyzed while we found someone to shoot them. I remember farmers who thought it was a good thing to leave poison out. I remember the trees being cut from most of the farms when the govt decided it was a good idea to promote cutting every bit of scrub tree. I remember the massive explosion of tent caterpillars that covered hundreds of kilometers and denuded the entire region’s remaining vegetation. I remember the people who stubbornly remained farming with horses while other conventional farmers were going bankrupt and having estate sales. I remember that estate sales were how other farmers managed to keep going. I remember that my parents had faith in money and jobs and corporate living. I remember that I hated it from the first time I saw living things suffering from chemical poisoning. I remember hating gardens because they always had the Wall of Poison in the garden shed. I remember that our cabin was on a lake that used to have a beaver dam and beavers. That there were loons and pelicans on the lake (on the far far side where motorboats rarely intruded). I remember taking my Swedish bf fishing there and him marveling at how easy it was to catch jackfish, which are sold in supermarkets in Sweden. I know that my greatgrandparents lived in sod huts but they never passed down any thing about bison. I know that my great uncles lived on a farm with no plumbing or electricity. They had a wood stove. I remember living in Jasper National Park for part of my childhood and how I was actually happy there, but it warped my view of the world because I would spend most of my time playing with some other ruffians at the town dump, with the town dump bears and other wildlife. I felt that the bears were my family. They were happy munching away and we were playing in the forest around them and it was the village that raised me. I grew up believing that animals were to be respected as other living creatures, but soon found out that this was not true outside the park, or for all of those who came in to the park. I remember park rangers who loved the wilderness and the creatures that were allowed to live there without being hunted. I remember the bugles of the bull elk that reached enormous sizes and I remember falling out of the tent trailer in my sleeping bag while listening to their trumpeting calls. I remember the Snaring River and how powerful nature felt there. It felt like a place where humans could not reach or penetrate to flatten and destroy and build crap.

    I remember that my grandma used to ride a horse to school, name of Buster, and if he had the chance he would run back to the farm and leave the kids stranded in town. I wonder why my great grandparents wanted the kids to leave the farm and go to school. I wish now that I could live on that farm and raise my kids there and teach them how to live off the land because as Derrick has said in other contexts, the urban poor are fucked, and that’s what we are now. And now we have lots of time to remember the past and how much better it was before tar sands and pipelines and oil derricks every 5 km and severe pollution and toxic waste dumps in the wilderness, because the abuse of the materialists and men and this culture has made me unserviceable and unemployable and we don’t know how we are going to survive. I watched Will Allen in Fresh yesterday, and Joel Salatin, and I cried and cried because I have been trying for 20 years now to reach some way of farming or gardening to help others and my kids, and with every passing year it is obviously harder and harder as real estate becomes gold and gold becomes impossible to have if you have any values. And I have to wonder how it happened that my great grandparents had a much better life than I have and that my kids will have, and I pray that the kids will not be forced to prostitute themselves to survive. I don’t know what their future holds but I can certainly sympathize with the homeless who probably had homes 15 years ago. I also have some kind of weird connection to aboriginal cultures that do not say the names of their family members, like Ishi the last Yahi. I cannot call people by their names, and I cannot see any reason to fight to live in a world that no longer wants my being.

    I do have envy still too; I envy those who see what is happening to the world and who have had the ability to prepare a farm or garden to survive, because they have their space, their land, their farms set up, their writing and a life–the fucked urban poor can do little more than be shunted from one charity or govt rejection to another in hopes of finding a place to sleep, forget about a life or a home or pets or nature. What is the reality of nature for us? Consume or be consumed? Exploit or be exploited? I don’t know. I just know that we didn’t ever figure out how to survive in the world of exploitation. Is it the culture or is it just nature that is cruel and heartless? Or that some are lucky and others are not? To see that some have support and were wanted and loved while others have no support, no love, no allowance to survive and are just ignored in the hopes that we will go away and stop asking for help, that makes me feel that nature is cruel. That being the weed in the sidewalk crack that tries to desperately cling to life while being stepped on and ignored until the minute it dares to show a flower, a sign of hope, and then it is doused with poison for that, if this is what nature is all about creating then I want the end of that awareness. Is it really just the culture or is it that nature can be nurturing and nature can be heartless, and that even though I feel overwhelming urges to love and protect all that is unloved and unnurtured, that there is no one like that for me. When I tried to garden I tried to take care of every single seedling, I could see how they were fragile at those early stages and they needed the right conditions or they would die. The details of their lives mattered to me, just as the details of a cub’s life matters to its mother. But what happened to make some mothers stop caring about their babies? What happened to warp humans into machines of destruction that don’t have these feelings of protectiveness towards all of life? Why do I feel it and many many others do not? Why do I earn contempt for speaking in favor of life? How did a culture of killing come to exist to kill so many creatures? How did my parents come to exist and be seen as good people while I spent most of my childhood locked inside rooms, closets, boxes—and then my neuroses made me the problem person, the lifelong scapegoat, the one to be reviled and ignored even more? How can that be a nature that supports life? Maybe, just maybe, nature has had enough of us. If there is karma then did Hitler return as that baby kitten that was tortured by the scientist in front of its mother? Or did he return as me to be tortured like the baby monkey given a wire cage for a mother and never able to experience unconditional love or warmth at all? Is life really just a battleground for personal comfort and endless self gratification and self concern and then we die to feed some other self focused creature?

    Then I can understand the other side. I can understand the urge to crush because those who are unwanted and unloved and hated for no reason other than existing don’t feel the love of nature, and maybe they want the world to be better off so they just crush themselves, like the young aboriginal people in this country doing just that. Crushing themselves before the heel of the lucky comes down on them for existing.

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