Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Shape of Our Time

My readers may know that I volunteer with a grassroots organization called Transition KW. The story of our era's 'Transition', as it's called by the international Transition Network, is one that isn’t widely known. Most people will tell you that our world is changing, even that it’s changing faster than ever before, but few will be willing to say exactly where that change is headed. The narratives of peak oil and climate change provide clues as to what kind of story we’re living today and where the present moment fits in the overall plot, but even then it can be hard to fit the news flashes into a meaningful picture of the shape of our time.

When I watch four sparrows dive low across Queen Street and hook upward into the small tree next to the yoga studio, for example, I know by the shape of their flight that something has spooked them. I crane my head for some sign of a hawk or other predator casting its ripple of tension across the downtown landscape, but my skill as a bird tracker isn’t sharp enough yet to know where or even whether a bird of prey has staked its perch in my vicinity.

Similarly, the shape of the land beneath my feet has a meaning I’m beginning to comprehend, but only gradually. My walking route to a friend’s house traverses the geological wonder that is Cedar Hill, a region of downtown Kitchener roughly bounded by Queen, Courtland, Stirling, and Charles Streets. Somewhere in the unfathomable depths of time, glaciers left behind this mountain of sandy soil to tower over the swamp that became Victoria Park and Schneider Creek.

When I walk up the west face of the hill toward my friend’s house, the words ‘over the mountain, over the mountain’ echo in my head to the rhythm of my footfalls. When I reach the summit and look down from Cameron Heights on the high school football field and the distant reaches of southeast Kitchener, I feel I’ve been granted the rare gift of perspective. As I descend toward Charles Street, this busy city become my reality once more; it environs me and shapes what I see or don’t see, underfoot and overhead.

Both our immediate environment and the history we live from day to day have a shape, a meaning, and a story. They make sense in a way that we may not understand until we walk them, or live them out, provided we’re paying attention as we go. Like any good story, they contain multiple perspectives; Cedar Hill has a long history as a low-income neighbourhood, with a strong sense of community identity that escapes my immediate attention as I walk its streets. Likewise, as my awareness of bird movements increases, so does my awe at the complexity of their perpetually shifting game of hide and seek, life and death.

Meanwhile the news marches on. We hear confusing, conflicting stories about extreme weather events and the price of oil. We struggle to understand the violence that seems to spring up in unexpected places. But these things too have an underlying shape, and like a geologist or a tracker reading the landscape, we can read the shape of our time if we look with the perspective that history gives us: our own history as a civilization and the history of the Earth itself.

We know that industrialization has depleted the most accessible deposits of fossil fuels in the earth’s crust, and at the same time converted those fuels into dangerous greenhouse gases. We know that the choices of our forebears have forced us to choose between ever more costly and toxic fuel sources, on the one hand, or a steep decrease in the amount of energy we use. No market fluctuation or innovative drilling technology will save us from this fact. And as a global political order built on oil extraction is strained to its limits, the old fault lines of that order will show the stresses in ways that will seem sudden and inexplicable if we haven’t been paying attention to the underlying story.

As for the meaning of that story? It’s not an easy question. I may as well ask, does Cedar Hill have a meaning? What about the flight of birds? Why should the shape of our time need a meaning, when it simply is, founded in the unfathomable past and stretching into the unknowable future?

But I’m only human. I need meaning. Just as ancient priests read meaning in the movements of birds, just as ancient peoples read meaning in the mountains that shaped their worlds, naming them and walking their steep paths slowly and reverently, I need to make sense of what’s happening around me. I know I won’t find it by reading internet forums, helpful as those may be. I’ll find it by paying attention, walking slowly, and opening my awareness to the things and people that environ me. These are the things that are meaningful. These are the things that have shaped me, and will continue to do so as we descend from the peak together.

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