- Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World, by Lisa Wells. Black Inc. $34.99.
An anxious world, pandemic entrapped, and haunted by images of bushfires and floods signalling climate crisis doesn't readily predicate belief. In fact, with prospects of returning to any kind of "normal" looking increasingly bleak, a Dickensian "epoch of incredulity" might seem more likely. How, then, shall we live? The question runs like a shadow cast by the subjective metaphor of the phrase at the end of the world, as Lisa Wells sets off in search of believers.
Growing up in post-war England, I was disinclined to believe very much at all. Searching for meaning in the absence of faith, I remember stumbling across Bertrand Russell's ominous claim that we are a credulous species who must believe in something, and in the absence of good reasons for belief, we will settle for bad ones. Which of course explains much of what has happened since, including Trump and the dangerous irrationality of climate change and COVID-19 denials.
Believers: making a life at the end of the world is a latter-day pilgrimage to test the human condition's resilience in the face of plausible extinction. Wells is a published poet, and this caught my interest early, since the profound task she has taken on here surely needs an eye for the kind of detail best approached with the insight of empathy, rather than the clinical detachment of science. This is not to say she runs across the surface of empirical evidence. Her journey through the colourful diversity of visionaries, anarchists, and environmental patriots is chronicled with an engaging sense of patience, wit, and wisdom.
Wells is an interesting woman. A non-fiction writer whose debut collection of poetry, The Fix, won the Iowa Poetry Prize, her poems and essays have been published by The New York Times, and Harper's magazine, among other places. She struggled with a disaffected childhood, running away one morning aged seven, then wandering home in the evening to find her farewell note still stuck to the fridge door where she had left it. No-one had noticed that she had gone.
A high school dropout in the 1990s, with, as she says, "a trauma history and an axe to grind, the daughter of a white, liberal, poor single mother who'd relinquished her authority over my life basically the instant I refused it - virtually ensured I'd have at least passing contact with activist movements". Of course, it was more than just passing contact. A brightly inquisitive intelligence, together with a rebellious streak, and deep-rooted conviction that the world required urgent restoration, secured her future as a keen-sighted front-runner in the race to save us from ourselves.
Her journey includes some rough-and-tumble hands-on experience with the legendary Finisia Meldrano, and her "Prairie Faeries" as they plant crops wherever they can, sometimes arranging flowering tubers to later reveal hillside graffiti, such as "this is food". Investigating the myth of promised lands, in Taos, New Mexico, the charismatic leader of a loosely religious group, TILT (the Taos Initiative for Life Together) tells her of his yearning, "to help rewild and transform Christianity back to the subversive, earth-honouring, empire-resisting, hope-engendering kind of thing, for a long, long time". Perhaps prompting this reflection from Wells: "Maybe the promised land only ever existed in the promise itself. The promise to stop running, to put down roots, to know the stone and valley in all their earthly beauty and imperfection. To nurture that which nurtures you. To help one another find a way home."
Constantly willing to push herself towards closer connections with the earth, Wells enrols in a class to learn the art of tracking from Fernando Moreira, whose skills are hypersensitive to any landscape, with a success rate for finding fugitives or lost people highly prized. I guess we tend to forget that our early survival was largely dependent upon tracking skills, and the ways in which intimacy with our own environment can enhance and validate our humanity.
Final passages consider degradation of California's ancient meadows and visit various literary and philosophical associations. This is a passionately poetic response to ecological evangelism, and I hope it gains the readership it deserves.
There is a brief story that Wells slips in almost as an aside, but it resonated vividly with me. Writing about a Philadelphian community called The Simple Way, Wells mentions a handgun being found in a basement.
Taking a cue from the swords and ploughshares parable, it was melted down and made into a tiny garden pick. Local military veterans and former cops began surrendering their weapons for similar treatment. Hallelujah! I cried aloud into the night, now that's a belief worth claiming in whatever time we have left. Please find this beautifully valuable book and read it. Soon!