In the magnificent Ursula Le Guin short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, an idyllic city named Omelas is described in which the residents live a utopian existence. Ms. Le Guin goes to great lengths to describe a grand day of celebration within the city as well as the deep beauty of the residents themselves. She is masterful in her descriptions. Although I have not read the story in years, sitting in solitude on a particularly quiet evening, I can easily picture the existence she describes.
One reason this is so is because I live it.
The reason I say this is not because I am from Salem, Oregon (Omelas is, by design, “Salem O” spelled backward). It’s not because Ms. Le Guin has peered into my life and written about it, nor because she and I share anything other than a Northwest heritage. The reason I can picture this existence is because the story is not really about the city, but about the secret the city keeps.
In a dark cellar in the midst of this beautiful mecca there lives a child. He is about ten years old. His growth is impossibly stunted. He lives on meager rations and sits in his own excrement. He was once healthy and happy, but was taken from what might be termed a normal life and put in the dark cellar, away from anything that might have brought him comfort. The author goes to great lengths to impress upon the mind of the reader the condition of the child. The clincher for me, the shocking fact of her story, is that the happiness of the citizens depends somehow upon the misery of the child. It's not said how or why this is the case, only that it is. The child must suffer so the beauty of the city can remain. “The ones who walk away from Omelas” are those that are unable to bear this fact; can’t suffer themselves to be part of a system where an innocent is tortured so a city can be beautiful. For these walkers, these apostates, these unpatriotic, there’s an underlying principle, an ethical imperative, an empathetic spring that can’t be ignored. And they leave. We aren’t told anything about what happens to them. Only that some leave this great circumstance.
I’m beginning to understand them.
I just heard a Ted Talk about forests (“How Trees Talk To Each Other” by Suzanne Simard). It put me in tears within five minutes. Why? Because the woman who spoke was a scientist who studied the communication between trees. Not just trees of the same species, but between species. What she found is that when one is lacking carbon, they “ask” for it from those nearby that are not lacking it. And they get it. When a “mother tree” is terminally ill, she passes on information to the small trees around her which are connected to her under the forest floor. The mycelium and mushroom colonies are a part of this great network as well.
Did you ever watch “Avatar”? Listening to this TED Talk, it would appear that the movie is more of a documentary than we might have thought.
So what do these two stories, Omelas and Avatar, have to do with each other?
To further flesh out my struggle, I want to tell you of a vision I have in my mind. It’s been with me a very long time. I don’t know how it got there, quite honestly, but it’s vivid. It may have something to do with some early Sun Dance experience before I understood the purpose of the part of that ceremony that involves deep suffering. I don’t know. But some point in my existence, in this life or some other, I became identified with a suffering man. I don’t know his name or anything meaningful about him, but I can picture him. Worse, I can feel him, what he feels. He is lonely, scared, and being held against his will in a concrete room. He has brown skin and is dressed in a dress shirt, now stained with blood. People know he’s there, but only the ones that take joy in hurting him. His family is unaware of his location. No friends come to call. Just before he dies at the hands of his torturers, he wonders where, in the billions of people on earth, are those who care for him? Why must he die alone, hungry and thirsty in a man-made cave, an innocent man at the hands of other men who have come to be capable of this kind of action? He knows on some level that in most places in the world, life is carrying on. People are laughing, drinking clean water, eating good food, enjoying family and friends; all while he suffers at the hands of people who have no light in their eyes and who enjoy inflicting searing pain. He is One, an individual, a consciousness. He has to believe he has meaning, doesn’t he? But it’s nowhere to be seen in his current experience. He begins to doubt his meaning. And he dies alone.
This evening, all these stories came to a single point in my heart. Omelas, the trees, Avatar and this inexplicable vision. And I sobbed like a child.
I used to believe that humans were simply imperfect stewards of the planet and that we were doing the best we could with so many people. Where there was pollution, extinction, privation and suffering, I shrugged it away with barely a pause because it seemed so removed from me. I felt bad, genuinely, but what could I do? This was when I was at a point in my understanding where I actually thought that I was one thing and that “nature” or “other people” were another. I was man and that over there was nature. I was one person and those people in that country were others. Then came a point where I saw that I was connected to everything and everyone and that another could not be affected without me somehow becoming affected as well. This came to me as a revelation - and a resignation - deeper than words. It didn’t involve magic mushrooms, ayahuasca or LSD. Rather, it involved meditation. It involved stillness. Eventually, it involved ceremony. And I have come to see that we humans are connected in ways we can barely comprehend, but that the connection resembles the trees in the TED Talk. I also saw that we, particularly within Western Culture, are not stewards of nature at all. If that’s the commandment in Genesis, we have failed. And If the commandment of the New Testament is to “love they neighbor as thyself”, we have failed this, too. We don’t look after living things that don’t readily speak our language. Or that look differently from us. Or those that do look the same as us, were it not for the difference in skin pigmentation. Or that have the same skin pigmentation, but have less money to spend for any number of reasons, call God something else or live separate from our own preferences.
Any or all of these observations are ready-made philosophical footholds into what it means to be a steward, deeply human or simply a co-recipient of the gift of life. All we have to do is ask ourselves why these conditions are so.
I had an experience this past summer where I watched two pigs grow from piglets into huge sows. They were named “Pie Crust” and “Pork-chetta.” I thought this was funny until I saw they knew their names and readily approached when they were called. Suddenly, bacon had the flavor of an intelligent animal rather than just the regular delicious taste I was used to. A package I recently purchased might have read, “Nameless but intelligent animal that spent several months in squalor so you could have variety in your diet: smoky flavor”.
Other facts that seem to be connected, like the suffering of the child and the happiness of Omelas, the man in the concrete room and Avatar:
A week ago a goat on our farm uncharacteristically bawled all day before he was taken by a man to become a festive Mexican dinner;
Our clothes keep getting cheaper;
A lovely woman I dated a several years ago routinely saw children ritualistically murdered on an altar when she herself was a child;
Our fisheries are decimated;
The truly wild bison, the kind that once moved as one organism ten miles wide and thirty miles long, are gone;
An undercover cop I met at a Sun Dance this past year told me that it’s common knowledge where he’s from that many of our representatives in Washington are involved in underground child trafficking, from Eastern Europe in particular;
Sports, movies, games, popular music and especially porn are our distractions of choice in America;
Every day all over the world, in countries we care less about than our own, atrocities of both the human and natural world are committed in the name of "our interests abroad", "freedom", democracy and more specifically, cheap and abundant power.
In each of these brutal and true statements there lives a child, a man or a tree. The child from Omelas. The man from my vision. The mother tree in a nearby old-growth forest or the Great Tree from Avatar.
Meanwhile, I live quite comfortably, thank you.
I choose to live on less because I feel somewhere in my heart that I am that child, that man and that tree. And were I suffering, I would hope that someone would send me some thoughts, would miss me, would remember me. I would hope that my death would not be without meaning, were I tree, goat or man. I would hope that whoever survived on this beautiful earth would reconsider what it means to be a steward. But I am under no illusions: I could do more. I could do with less (or different) if it were necessary. Almost all of us could, really.
To me, a steward is like a good ruler, a gracious and just king or queen. The ruler must at times make hard choices, but they value the lives of their subjects for the simple fact that they have life. They respect life first and foremost because they experience it as a profound gift from something greater than they. Seeing the same animating force of life in other living things, respect is granted them no matter their appearance, language, life form or economic class. It’s afforded simply because Creator has respected these "others" enough to give them life as well. There must be mutually exclusive benefits in this world, certainly. That’s also the nature of life here. After all, cougars eat deer. Bears eat berries. Lava decimates forests. But our gracious ruler never takes life lightly if they’re really a steward. They don’t waste life, theirs or another's. This is the purpose behind saying grace at a meal. A pause to give thanks for the non-human life that is sustaining our own. An individual or culture that is truly a steward of other life forms pauses out of reverence to thank whatever Force made the meal possible, whether that meal is a glass of clear water in the middle of a busy workday or a lavish Thanksgiving feast. And they feel it. A rote prayer does not suffice. Not if they know Life. Not if they know God.
I am still living in Omelas. I guess I've been here all my life. Honestly, I’ve been afraid to leave it. I really don’t know what’s out there beyond the town. I suspect all kinds of things, from the eternally beautiful to the unbearably horrific. But I’m walking towards the outskirts. I can now see the borders.
And the sunset is beckoning me.
--Eric “Aspen” Marley