By David Underhill –
NEW YORK, N.Y. – Teddy Roosevelt looked down from his bronze horse and saw time spin off course. The forged Indian and African afoot beside him for nearly a century abandoned the pedestal and strode into the street.
In the Museum of Natural History behind him the display cases showing natives in their wild habitats emptied. Squaws and braves in old Hollywood films and late night TV reruns came off the screens and streamed into the avenue before him.
Beyond them stretched Central Park, a contrived memory of Manhattan past, and ahead rose startling spiky downtown New York City. In feathers and paint, to the cadence of drums and rattles, they marched out of extinction and into the skyscraper canyons arisen in their absence.
Gathered now from remnants scattered across the continent, in tribute to primordial nurturing wisdom lost, they led a throng so long the tail hadn’t yet moved when the head reached the end of the route miles south.
Walt Whitman, another New Yorker, envisioned the regenerative forces of life in Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, but in that early surging industrial era he never could foretell anything like the need for this People’s Climate March. Then the sudden capacity for transformation of raw nature into useful things looked like the dawning of triumph over scarcity and deprivation. Lately the binge of stuff builds toward a culminating party with a genuinely epic global hangover.
The fear of that, sprinkled with hopes of avoiding it, summoned this aggregation numbering hundreds of thousands on Sunday September 21. Mounted metal Teddy would have recognized some of them as the trooped by. Many of the top conceivers and planners were his kind of people.
This was evident the night before at a church on the opposite side of the park in a neighborhood reputed among the richest in the world. The event was a panel discussion by celebrity leaders familiar to activists in the environmental movement. An overflow crowd came from near and afar, as elicited by the moderator.
Yet they looked oddly homogenous despite their dispersed origins: varied ages but quite white and seeming comfortable in this posh district. If the next day’s mass march had the same composition, it would be socially elevated but politically inert. And Teddy would be at ease.
People of Faith
But it wasn’t the same. It was kaleidoscopic.
Behind the First Nations vanguard swirled colors, banners, flags, signs, quasi-coordinated contingents, blaring irregular bands, defenders of front line communities assaulted by toxics and floods, union groups aroused from stupor, doctors and professors, students and seniors, veterans, a trudging suit dragging a block of seething, melting ice grinding along the pavement in a tethered pan, Noah’s ark crewed by People of Faith, as they labeled themselves, to warn of rising waters not by acts of god, by us.
But all the marchers were people of faith. The skyscrapers towered over them like vaulted cathedrals as they presented their plea to the higher powers of presidents and prime ministers convening nearby at the United Nations. Hear us, oh earthly lords, and redeem us from our folly. We have defiled creation with our hellish fires and are now paying the wages of our sin.
The marchers didn’t recite this prayer but implied it by seeking something unworldly. Everything around them sprang from fossil fuels: not just the moving vehicles in the streets and subways but the buildings soaring above them. The stone quarried and steel smelted to erect them, the lights inside them, the work done there daily—all of this expressed the traits of a system devoted to extracting and burning fossil fuels for its power.
And the marchers were saying this has to stop. It’s giving the planet a slow-motion heat stroke and turning the climate irritable and angry. So it must stop.
The belief in such a miraculous transformation fulfills the biblical definition of faith: the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Participation in the march was an affirmation of faith. It’s hard to see evidence that those with the capacity to change the world’s course intend to do so. Yet the marchers hope for a different outcome and take a stand anyway, contrary to the evidence. They are people of faith.
But this mass testimony has no apparent earthly traction. It ends without assembly, or plan or prospect. People just trickle away. Across town the chieftains meeting at the UN take rhetorical note of the march and then turn immediately to more traditional geopolitical matters.
Flood Wall Street
A few thousand declined to depart. They clustered next morning in the park at Manhattan’s tip, underwater during Superstorm Sandy two years ago, for an Occupy movement revival.
Speakers at the center of the crowd shouted their message—in short phrases—to those circled closest around them, who repeated in unison to those beyond them, who repeated in unison to those beyond them……….
The effect was like dropping a stone in the middle of a pond. Cadenced words spread in concentric ripples across the surface until fading at the thin fringes of the crowd.
Their recurring theme was that the system headquartered in the financial citadel thrusting up at the edge of the park was incapable of refraining from wreckage. It craves profits like a junkie does dope, and it will do anything to satisfy this urge—including destruction of the climate that sustains all life. So this system must be destroyed to protect life.
We are unstoppable, another world is possible! they chanted marching out of the park to Flood Wall Street, we are unstoppable, another world is possible!
And singing: The people gonna rise with the water, we gonna calm this crisis down, I hear the voice of my great granddaughter, singing shut down Wall Street now!
The speeches, chant and song had penetrated the haze of a park bench resident. His face was leathery with weather and liquor, his gait unsteady as he stood to assess the passing scene: They say they gonna change the world, gonna change the world. World gonna change them, gonna change them.
Neither happened that day. They didn’t change the world, but they did remain steadfast.
They didn’t even shut down the Wall Street stock trading and bank district, although they did clog a street within it. Specifically, the one that’s home to the financiers’ version of the golden calf worshiped by wayward ancient Israelites. It’s a bronze bull poised as if charging forward with the rising values of a bullish stock market.
To prevent desecration of this shrine by the mob the authorities had surrounded the bull with a double ring of fencing and cops. Around this settled the human flood. And around that were more fencing and cops.
The result was a singing, chanting, banner flaunting day-long stalemate, ended by fatigue and about a hundred arrests. And the regular business of Wall Street continued throughout.
Meanwhile, another crowd of thousands was gathering uptown in Times Square. The mammoth climate march had passed through there the day before. Now the tourists were returning to gawk for Broadway celebs and get their pictures taken with costumed cartoon characters or with women wearing flouncy feathery headdresses and little else besides paint of patriotic coloration in strategic pubic places.
Some had come for opera. Opening night at the Metropolitan Opera was showing live on the giant screens draping the buildings framing the square. Usually they are flashing ads, but this evening Mozart’s elegantly goofy romantic comedy The Marriage of Figaro was cavorting across the screens and pouring from the speakers.
And beneath the screens the perpetual news scrolls were reporting that American forces had just begun bombing Syria.
Years of concern and months of intensive organizing had generated one march of historic size filling the city’s broad avenues for miles and another march into its financial heart. Both had delivered the alarm that reckless use of fossil fuels is jeopardizing life and this habit must change—swiftly.
Then the moment the marches ended events resumed their normal troubled course. Or appeared to, anyway.
Perhaps the effort behind those marches will be like the stone dropped into the speech pond down at the park. Ripples radiate from it and spread until somewhere they create a breach and everything begins to move in a new direction.
At some point something like this has to happen, because the marchers are right. The ways humanity has devised to develop itself are not sustainable. In one manner or another this truth will eventually insist on revealing itself.
Back uptown where the big march assembled Teddy Roosevelt doesn’t realize this. Abandoned and alone atop his pedestal, his metal head is stuck in the time when he wrote The Winning of the West, a multi-volume celebration of America’s expansion across the continent, trampling everything and everybody in the way. He’s elated that his successors in the White House have expanded the mission. He’s ecstatic over the breaking news that an attack on Syria is launched.
In his corroded cranium he’s fabricating the outline of a multi-volume sequel. Its title will be The Winning of the Rest.
Events summon the living to a different mission. The marchers disperse to their communities, knowing no one else will save them and their earthly home. They must refuse to serve as pall bearers for their own funeral.
© 2014, David Underhill. All rights reserved.