Listening to the Land Saves My Life
A conversation with Will Falk
Where it's not uncommon for contemporary writers to root their work in mining—lived experience, the depth of the canon, the cultural moment, whatever—Will Falk, poet, lawyer, and environmental activist from Park City, Utah makes the whole of his work about listening to the natural world. The effect, in this reader's opinion, is a kind of anthropocentric-for-biocentric blood transfusion.
I asked Will to describe what it took for him to get enough media and concrete out of the way so's to hear from the biosphere more clearly and directly. As fate would have it, he and his partner were gearing up for a camping trip in southern Utah, so he had some space to think about it. Here's what he came back with.
Survival compels me.
My own survival, the survival of those I love, and the survival of the biosphere compel me. Listening to the land saves my life.
An old, gray seagull flying wobbly through thick, wet snow to speak to me from the concrete ledge of a window I watched Lake Michigan from while I recovered from a suicide attempt in St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee, WI saved my life. A pregnant mother moose who shared our single-track 17-mile snowmobile trail at the Unist’ot’en Camp turned to stare me in the eye, giving me a glimpse into the wisdom of the wild, saved my life. The wind whispering questions through aspen leaves in Park City, Utah pulled me from my depressed mind a few weeks ago and, again, saved my life.
The compulsion will last as long as my survival. My survival will last as long as the compulsion. I suffer from major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder caused by the same forces producing total ecological collapse. I must listen to the biosphere to resist depression and humans must listen to the biosphere to stop the destruction of Life.
A novice attorney, I wanted to die. I was so tired.
Before I was a writer I was a public defender in Kenosha, WI, doing my best to push back against a criminal justice system intent on perpetuating institutional racism. I spent all my time rotating between the wooden walls of the courthouse, the glass walls of the office, and the steel walls of the jail.
A novice attorney, I was determined not to let my inexperience affect my clients, but I made mistakes. The only solution I could come up with involved working more urgently and working longer hours. I woke up at 3AM to review my case files. I worked Saturdays and Sundays. I walked back to my beat Jeep Cherokee in the parking lot of the Kenosha County Jail after telling another client there wasn’t much I could do for her, and broke down sobbing with my forehead against the steering wheel in broad daylight. I became exhausted. I made more mistakes.
One night, I came home from dinner and took all the Ambien sleeping pills I had just been prescribed that morning. I wanted to die. I was so tired.
I was also living a life completely mediated by humans. This mediation was total. Physically, my life happened almost completely within the office, the jail, the courthouse, my apartment building. Spiritually, I had forsaken the Catholicism I was raised in, but instead of recognizing the sacred in every living being around me, my development into a mature member of a natural community stalled in an adolescent insistence that life had no meaning outside the meaning humans could create.
This insistence imprisoned me psychologically as surely as the jail physically imprisoned my clients. I became Sisyphus pushing my boulder up the hill, blind to the countless non-human others producing my life, and cut off from natural allies in the biosphere.
As the pills entered my bloodstream and I settled into what I thought was my deathbed, time froze on my consciousness. I’m not sure I believe in a spiritual afterlife, but this last moment before I passed out was a functional eternity. I was confronted with the totality of my life and I realized that if I died this night, I would have failed my role. And, if the pain that was branded onto my mind with my recognition that I could give so much more to Life was the last experience frozen on my consciousness forever, then hell is very real, indeed.
A heavy snow began to fall.
After this suicide attempt, I spent a week in the psych ward of St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee. The psych ward was on the seventh floor of an eight-floor building. For exercise, and because there was nothing else to do, I braved the fluorescent lights outside my room and paced the long hallway that made up most of the seventh floor.
At each end of the hallway were wide windows. One looked west into the rows of old company housing for the Milwaukee Iron Company. The other looked east over the waters of Lake Michigan. Patients are not allowed off the seventh floor and there were rusty iron bars outside the glass just in case we were tempted to take that route to fresh air. I tried to open a window facing Lake Michigan anyway. It would not open. A heavy snow began to fall surrounding the hospital in more white. I pressed my forehead against the cold glass pane. The cold felt good.
It was not long before I saw an old spotted seagull awkwardly wheeling and diving through the falling snow. I was mesmerized by the odd gracefulness in his seemingly drunken turns through the snow. His circles brought him closer and closer to my window. I wondered why he was flying through such treacherous conditions. He was, of course, the only bird in the sky. As he flew closer, I was stricken with the beauty of his grayness against the white.
Gray. Color. A contrast to the blankness. I began to believe the drunk old gull was braving the snowstorm to speak to me. He passed a few feet from my window, dipped a wing, and wobbled back toward Lake Michigan. A few moments later he was back. He squeezed through iron bars over my window, faced me, made eye contact, and flew away.
The waves on the lake rippled gray, too. The heavy snow fell slowly, gingerly over the waters. The waves hesitated, hanging a moment in the air, before being swallowed by the lake. White became gray. I drank up the color for hours following one gray wave after another from their birthplace on the horizon until they washed not far below me onto the shore.
I was compelled to write this down. I’ve been watching and listening ever since.
Writing only for myself is masturbatory.
Depression is a chronic illness. Doctors know now that our biological stress response is largely responsible for depression. A body experiencing too much stress, for too long, can overproduce stress response hormones. If these hormones are present for a long enough time they literally damage the brain. Depression results from this brain damage. The dominant culture (which I call “civilization”), based on ecological drawdown and enforced scarcity, creates profoundly stressful lives for its members.
Depression bends my mind over itself and makes listening a constant struggle. A classic depression symptom is social withdrawal and isolation. The brain reacts to depression in a similar way as to other illnesses. When you get the flu, your body tells you to isolate. The same instinct is triggered with depression.
With the flu, the instinct is adaptive and good for the way it prevents contagion. But with depression the instinct can prove deadly. Isolation leads to rumination and rumination perpetuates the release of the very stress hormones that damage the brain and produce depression. In this way, withdrawal creates a vicious cycle and the cycle must be interrupted. Personally, I experience suicidal ideation too frequently making interruption of this cycle imperative for my personal survival.
Doctors strenuously encourage depressed patients to socialize even when every instinct tells them not to. Spending time with loved ones releases hormones that counteract stress hormones. Socializing also occupies the depressed mind so it cannot ruminate. When doctors insist that their patients spend time with loved ones, however, most people understand this to mean exclusively human loved ones.
That ancient seagull opened me to the vast possibilities for relationship in the natural world. The impulse to write about my experience with the seagull pulled me out of my depressed mind and gave me something to ponder beyond my own pain. I do not typically understand what non-humans are saying right away. Pinyon pine trees do not have tongues, the wind is too vast and too busy for words, and great blue herons do not speak English.
So, I have to ponder the experience. Life speaks in patterns, gestures, and themes that must be teased out. We understand through story and it is no wonder that we discover Life’s meaning in the act of telling stories. I feel that writing only for myself is masturbatory. It might feel good, but it doesn’t help anyone but me. Writing with the desire to share my experience publicly forces me to order it in such a way that it makes sense to other humans. In this way, writing becomes social on multiple levels. I listen to non-humans and then I begin public conversations with humans about what I think I’ve heard.
Listening to the biosphere goes well beyond my own survival.
The dominant culture exhibits many of the classic symptoms of depression. This culture has isolated itself from the biosphere and is suicidal—stepping ever closer to the brink of total ecological collapse.
This collapse, this suicidality, is produced, in part, by the dominant culture’s belief that humans are the only beings capable of speaking, the only beings worth listening to, the only beings capable of relating with. My friend, the brilliant environmental writer, Derrick Jensen, has given us a name for this phenomenon. He calls it “human supremacy,” and the myth of human supremacy is a foundational story the dominant culture is built upon.
Human supremacy is propagated because it derives its power from ecological destruction. Before you can destroy non-human others you must silence them. Deep ecologist Neil Evernden has pointed out that the first thing scientists do in vivisection labs is cut the vocal cords of the animals they are going to operate on. The dominant culture cuts the vocal cords of non-humans, of people of color, of women, of anyone it wants to dominate.
I ignored non-human voices for too long and I almost destroyed myself as a result. The dominant culture ignores and actively suppresses non-human voices and is destroying Life as a result. I am not naive enough to believe that writing alone will stop the murder of the biosphere, but writing helps me understand non-human voices, helps me resist the seductions of depression in the process, and is a tool to remind humans of their heritage. I always seek to contribute my writing to serious, organized resistance. I believe my role in this resistance is to combat human supremacy through reminding my readers of the countless, beautiful voices—human and non-human—to listen to in the biosphere.
I am in love with aspen trees, with pinyon-juniper forests, with my one-year old nephew, with my four-year old niece, with their aunt (my amazing partner), with a rainbow trout that tickled my feet in a pool I soaked them in after a 50 mile hike in the Sierras a few summers ago, with that seagull that woke me up to it all. I am in love, so I listen, and when I listen I hear murmurs of fear about ever-growing threats. When you’re in love, you act to protect your beloved. We cannot fail to stop the dominant culture, because if we fail every voice will be silenced forever.
Will Falk’s writing has been published by the San Diego Free Press, CounterPunch, Earth Island Journal, and Deep Green Resistance News Service among others.
His work can be read in aggregate at willfalk.org