The October 12 episode of What Could Possibly Go Right? was a dialogue between Vicki Robin and Kamea Chayne that touched on the fundamental questions What is life? and What do people want? A single answer to both of these is found in a 1964 episode of The Twilight Zone which was a translation of the French adaptation of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce directed by Robert Enrico.
The film begins with the lead character about to be hung on the bridge, then as the rope apparently breaks, he drops into the river and swims to freedom. Running through the woods he arrives at a house where he finds the woman he loves and is about to embrace her when his illusion suddenly ends with his actual execution. In the scene where he comes up in the water a deeply moving song begins with the lyrics “A livin’ man. A livin’ man. I wanna be a livin’ man.” The complete song is heard in the first one and a quarter minutes of this clip which one should watch and listen to before continuing to read my essay. Moving from the man the camera turns to the things he is seeing and hearing with heightened sensibility – sunlight through a tree canopy, a centipede traversing a leaf and a spider on a web. Exquisitely expressing the immediacy, vibrance and preciousness of life, the clip also conveys the truth that living involves active immersion in a living world. My seventh grade school mates and I watched The Twilight Zone episode, and the next day in art class one of them made a paper mâché figure of the livin’ man. I was so captivated by the doll that she gave it to me, and to this day it stands on my dresser – an icon of livin’. Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” and this is why the clip is so powerful: it represents the fulfillment of people’s ultimate desire, which is to be livin’.
It is most significant that the film’s depiction of livin’ isn’t footage of the man, but of living things around him accompanied by the lyrics “In all the world. He moves around. He walks around…” Until recently our acquaintance with livin’ has been limited to incomprehensible personal experiences and artistic representations, but now, as all of life has become endangered, understanding of it is advancing. Naturalist Craig Holdrege derives from Aldo Leopold’s literary “Thinking Like a Mountain” a key concept. In Thinking Like a Plant he writes, “For Leopold the wolf is not a separate organism that outwardly interacts with other organisms and the landscape. The wolf is present (or is a presence) in the whole landscape.”
Leopold’s essay relates the overall vital impact of a population of wolves on a mountain, something we can readily grasp. Moreover, now living in the Anthropocene, we are painfully aware of the destructive, indeed self-destructive, presence of humans on the earth. But what would a positive human presence look like? As an illustration of such a mode of existence I offer an experience of my own in a neighborhood years ago. My husband and I owned a house whose back yard bordered a small creek, on the opposite bank of which was a high tree-covered bluff. The beautiful scenery provided by the hillside contributed greatly to my enjoyment and love of my home, but one day a developer arrived with a plan to build dozens of condominiums along the far bank. These would rise two stories above a ground-level garage, presenting a solid wall of construction looming over our home and the entire neighborhood.
I immediately felt a sense of personal violation, for my view of the bluff had become a cherished part of me. Determined to stop the development but knowing nothing of the usual tactics, I just walked up the hill and knocked on the door of the house at the top. The neighborhood consisted of around seventy homes bounded by a wide boulevard, the creek and state institution grounds which together set it off geographically. With a ready-made canvass turf I proceeded to visit every one of the houses, seeking to gather their residents behind me. As I told folks about the plan I made a point of mentioning that I had just talked to their neighbors next door, referring to them by name, and thereby connecting the households. Once I completed the circuit I re-walked it.
My property was truly ground zero for the impact of the development, since it was beside where the creek bed was narrowest and the bluff steepest, thus the most scenic section. Constantly reaching out and talking to people, especially those living closest, I made the street in front of my home the hub of the neighborhood, where we would meet and talk almost daily. This activity became a social life for us that created bonds extending to the place as we formed a living community consisting of the people and the place – its geology, infrastructure, homes, flora and fauna.
My experience exemplifies Holdrege’s conception of presence. For me, an individual person, the neighborhood was a place that I affected extensively by walking all around, talking and forming bonds with the residents. Acting as a part of the total community, especially as an organizer, I looked upon and treated the other people specifically as parts of it as well, keeping them engaged and maintaining the collective intention to preserve that body. Our overall consciousness was love – awareness of the conjoined lives of the people and the place. In this the nonhuman elements were active also, for in being there as objects of sight, physical bodies and organisms the bluff with its vegetation actively entered into the people’s lives, forming parts of them and the whole living community too. Although it was driven by the fear that the development would materialize, my activity was exhilarating, for I was truly livin’.
In this experience I found an ideal for human life that is now supported by leading alternatives addressing climate change and the larger environmental crisis. David Korten proposes a global order of sustainable small communities, while Richard Heinberg has just amplified the call for degrowth. Going beyond capitalism and socialism solidarity economics, which figures in the Green New Deal, adds a formula for social justice to the vision.
While Holdrege captures livin’ in his notion of presence, Leopold bids us specifically to think like a mountain. This means viewing things as so many living component presences that together compose larger living wholes. Thinking of particular mountains from which wolves had been eradicated he observed that they had been severely degraded. Their condition led him to conclude that once people think like a mountain they must proceed to act multi-dimensionally, taking parts and wholes into consideration to secure the lives of all. This is the perspective of the whole, which is also reflected in that of each part, thus as a person functions as a constituent presence they serve the whole.
It’s clear that livin’ isn’t a solo act, for it involves at least a community of people consciously acting to create and sustain for themselves a total living community. At this time we face a plethora of crises – climate change, loss of biodiversity, mass human migration, pandemic, inequality, injustice and subversion of democracy. The situation presents both extraordinary peril and opportunity for everyone to attain the greatest livin’ in history by coming together and acting multi-dimensionally as presences in their communities, nations and the world to achieve the ecological civilization. This especially means everyone asserting their presence in these bodies as fully engaged citizens.
Having begun this essay with reflections on a film I conclude it with comments on another one of the same vintage. Luis Buñuel’s 1962 The Exterminating Angel opens with a group of upper-class guests enjoying a house party. As the event winds down first one then others walk to the door but turn away, apparently unable to open it and walk out. They seem to be trapped in the house, and after days marked by a couple of deaths and general lapse into savagery one person walks to the door, opens it and leaves, moving the rest to follow. The message is that people are the hostages of their own mindsets from which, nevertheless, it is possible for them to escape. Though they have long freely allowed themselves to be confined within a self-destructive mode of existence, today they must make the choice between livin’ or dyin’. To pick the former people must first realize that they wanna be a livin’ man, woman or youth, then act as such.
This article is a digest of I Wanna Be a Livin’ Man (long version) .