The World Is a Dead Thing for Them

The Endangered Species Act, now under attack, helped save the bald eagle


In recent years, conservatives have at least paid lip service to protecting the environment—after all, isn’t conservatism about conserving?—and Richard Nixon even signed the Endangered Species Act. Now, however, it appears that the Trump administration is unashamedly bent on squeezing every red cent it can out of the earth, consequences for future generations be damned.

His latest move is rolling back Nixon’s act, at least if the courts will allow him to. (Can a president unilaterally reverse an act of Congress?) It’s no surprise that Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, architect of the plan, has worked for some of the country’s largest oil and gas companies. Here’s what the New York Times says about him:

President Trump on Monday announced he would nominate David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist and current deputy chief of the Interior Department, to succeed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned amid allegations of ethical missteps.

In a message on Twitter, Mr. Trump wrote, “David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!”

While Mr. Zinke had been the public face of some of the largest rollbacks of public-land protections in the nation’s history, Mr. Bernhardt was the one quietly pulling the levers to carry them out, opening millions of acres of land and water to oil, gas and coal companies. He is described by allies and opponents alike as having played a crucial role in advancing what Mr. Trump has described as an “energy dominance” agenda for the country.

Few authors deliver a more stinging indictment of such behavior than the Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko. I’ve written before on the witchery that she sees at work in the world, but it’s worth repeating because it captures the Trump administration’s attitude towards the world so exactly.

In Ceremony, we are told a story about a witches’ convention. The various witches try to outdo each other in evil deeds, but they are bested by one who tells the story of whites invading Indian lands. For these invaders, the earth is a dead object to be exploited:

Caves across the ocean
in caves of dark hills
white skin people
like the belly of a fish
covered with hair.

Then they grow away from the earth
then they grow away from the sun
then they grow away from the plants and animals.
They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
the trees and rivers are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive
The deer and bear are objects
They see no life

They fear
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.

The wind will blow them across the ocean
thousands of them in giant boats
swarming like larva
out of a crushed ant hill.

They will carry objects
which can shoot death
faster than the eye can see.

They will kill the things they fear
all the animals
the people will starve.

They will poison the water
they will spin the water away
and there will be drought
the people will starve.

They will fear what they find
They will fear the people
They kill what they fear.

Entire villages will be wiped out
They will slaughter whole tribes.

Corpses for us
Blood for us
Killing killing killing killing.

and those they do not kill
will die anyway
at the destruction they see
at the loss
at the loss of the children
the loss will destroy the rest.

Stolen rivers and mountains
the stolen land will eat their hearts
and jerk their mouths from the Mother.
The people will starve.

Evil though they may be, the other witches are horrified by such depravity:

So the other witches said
“Okay you win; you take the prize,
but what you said just now–
it isn’t so funny
It doesn’t sound so good.
We are doing okay without it
we can get along without that kind of thing.
Take it back
Call that story back.”

Once set in motion, however, the story “can’t be called back”:

But the witch just shook its
at the others in their stinking animal skins, fur and feathers.
It’s already turned loose.
It’s already coming
It can’t be called back.

Silko’s novel, written in 1977, played a role in the various rights movements of the time, including Native American and environmental rights, and it ends on a hopeful note. I remember being hopeful when President Jimmy Carter put large swathes of wilderness under government protection.

Now we’re seeing reversals from a party that fears the world and destroys what it fears. The struggle never ends.

Further note: I see that Trump’s buddy in Russia has just exploded a nuclear device, perhaps accidentally. Silko, well aware that uranium was mined on Indian land, includes the atom bomb in the witch’s story:

will take this world from ocean to ocean
they will turn on each other
they will destroy each other
Up here
in these hills
they will find the rocks,
rocks with veins of green and yellow and black.
They will lay the final pattern with these rocks
they will lay it across the world
and explode everything.

Set in motion now
set in motion
To destroy
To kill
Objects to work for us
objects to act for us
Performing the witchery
for suffering
for torment
for the still-born
the deformed
the sterile
the dead.

set into motion now
set into motion

Both Trump and Putin are nuclear weapon fans. Why are we not surprised?

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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