Speech at Story, Wyoming, 10/26/23
An Address on "Localist Nomadism"
The following is a 2800-word speech I gave at the “Machine and (Human) Nature” conference on 10/26/23 at the Wagon Box in Story, Wyoming. Paul Kingsnorth spoke, and I gave my address alongside my fiancee, Keturah Lamb, who spoke about not having a Social Security Number. I was greatly enlivened by the response — including an exhortation to write a book from numerous attendees and speakers (including Mr. Kingsnorth). Here, the text of the speech is presented, un-edited, for your perusal.
Perhaps there is a sort of “horseshoe theory” regarding place. At one end of the spectrum, the provincial man, rusticated by so many seasons in place, wields his four horizons as a sort of meta-geographical ship, wandering the waters of the world from his front porch. He sails the metaphysical tradewinds with his Rosary in hand as he prays for the world, or at his library desk, composing letters to his compatriots worldwide – always on display as the quintessential man of his place. Like an oak tree, he is thoroughly the product of his environs, and yet for it, he is somehow worldwide. Perhaps in so saying, I am remembering my great-grandmother, who eschewed travel in favor of watching the Travel Channel and later praying for the conversion of whoever lived in the featured nations during her nightly divine office.
I have found myself at the other end of the horseshoe, I suppose. As a boy, I was raring to light out across the highways, out ever westward, into the mountains and out to the dark beaches of the pacific northwest. As I read atlasses at the library, I read them not as a country scholar studies all of the places he’d rather not visit, but as a would-be Magellan, dreaming of life as an American hobo. When asked what I thought about my little Upstate New York hamlet and its two-hundred inhabitants, I blustered my lips like the horses next door, ardently stating that I would leave and never return. And all of my elderly friends and wizened old mentors at the town hall meetings and the Men’s Garden Club plant sales would merely eye me quietly, knowing my hubris – and knowing just as well that I’d have to find the truth out for myself.
The truth is as it ever was – hard for a teenage boy to make peace with. It took me many years to figure it out. I raised my thumb and hitchhiked across the continent, not once, or twice, or a dozen times, but more times than I could count. In five years’ time, I hitchhiked more than 100,000 miles and crossed the country several dozen times, riding with many thousands of drivers. The whiplash was thrilling at first – especially in conjunction with heavy boozing, which sent my brain from ecstatic stumbling into red-eyed hangovers and back again. Hitchhiking was quite the same – from rides with cops and homosexuals to Mormons and soccer moms and paranoiac cowboys, I sucked down biography after biography with all the sights and smells that could fit into an automobile. From the smell of methamphetamine smoke to perfume and gunpowder to the sounds of heavy metal, speaking in tongues, and the soft cooing of lonesome old women, I accidentally fell into the role of guerilla anthropologist, monitoring what I slowly came to realize was the decay of my own country – if not of Western civilization at large.
The refusal to work a steady job affords a man ample time to engage in serious study – and our country’s small-town libraries became my University easily. Reading about the ancestral ways of the world’s peoples, I became convinced that sedentary society was a bitter development across the board – that no nomadic peoples ever voluntarily settled down. Once a generation had been “broken” and the old ways of folding tents and mounting horses were forgotten, or made illegal, entire genomes were compelled to contort into a sort of open-air prison whereby the Powers That Be could be made ever richer and stronger. Break the chains, I thought to myself, and human beings would almost universally opt for a life on the road, like I was living. Perhaps this was wishful thinking – those years of my life were profoundly, almost painfully lonesome, and a tribe of nomads might’ve helped me fare better.
Instead I found myself slipping into the bowels of America’s itinerant underbelly, where swashbuckling and pirate-like crews of dreadlocked punks with face tattoos swept across the country on freight trains and interstates. Our music was dark and disgruntled, laced with harsh commentary about the “death culture” we’d sprung from. We bemoaned Western Civilization, heaped scorn upon sellouts and wage slaves, squatted shotgun shacks in New Orleans and shoplifted steaks from Wal-Mart. Life was cyclical among these “crust punks” – moving from soft northern summers to winters along the US-Mexico Border, moving between cyclical drinking and fighting and protesting, all punctuated only by personal crises or deaths related to suicide, train-hopping, and heroin. Such was the life of an anarchist.
Yet my days as a Catholic choir boy at a stern Irish parish in Upstate New York’s bleak, forlorn hinterlands could never quite leave me. In spite of my proximity to the traveling underground and my status as a naerdo’well transient, I was never one of them – I was too busy seeking out the quiet, empty places, where I was a solitary desert rat. Or, when going among the civilized and along their roads, I was poking around Historical Society meetings and taverns, asking the old folks about the former days – rooting out whatever hot embers of Original American Culture I could locate, anywhere from West Virginia to New Mexico to Maine. And as I went, I came round the horn, slowly coming to realize that human culture is most often the product of those who remain fixed in a single place – made by those who casted their bucket down without compromise, the ones who made their own flesh synonymous with the land.
Now, two minds well up in me – part pines for a renaissance of New World Travelers, bands of tribal wanderers, and American Gypsies, while the other part believes that the very thing I’d sought out from the beginning was contained within the few square miles of my home village. In classic twenty-something fashion, I had let the perfect get in the way of the good as a sort of experiment, coming to realize piece by piece that the world I had inhabited wasn’t so bad after all. From my home hamlet to the Catholic Church to my own gigantic extended family and their relative simplicity – all of it comprised one of the most wonderfully preserved vestiges of the former times we all pine for, and indeed, all of it ought to be rhapsodized and chronicled and husbanded, especially by the young.
For Upstate New York is not merely a golf course north of the Bronx – it is a vast and empty region, a forgotten anachronism, a fiefdom of Albany containing some of the surliest human antiques this nation has ever produced. Its impenetrable overcast marinates the spirit in quietude and peace – even holiness – and its glistening, empty hilltops croon a haggard hymn that elevates previous eras of hard-won abundance. Old grain-bins sink into the earth and fallow fields bespeak negligence and forgetfulness, or drunkenness, as the culture has marooned itself in a beachy, sunny, hypnotic hyper-affluence. As the lights of our Miamis and Dallases blaze ever outward to space, and Las Vegas penetrates the desert sky as a grim idol, Upstate New York holds the line quietly, stern-faced and frugal, and yet jolly in its innermost heart.
I could only have accessed this assessment of my home place by departing; perhaps there is something ancient about a young man’s epochal journeys. Perhaps the architecture of my self-discovery could be extrapolated onto Western Christendom at large – perhaps our collective foray into heavy industry has merely been a sort of Rumspinga, to use an Amish term, where we have ventured out into the highest reaches of our own achievement only to realize we were better off doing it the way great-great-granddad did it. At the risk of upsetting my Priest, I concede that the Hindu conception of historical time could be true enough – that just as we built the world up in the image of our own delusions only to return, a subsequent generation or three of simple yeomanry might drive our offspring to build great skyscrapers and spaceships again.
And therefore we must ask – what remains constant through this process? What features of humanity are essential and un-dying? This question seems to lay at the heart of so much of the contemporary discourse on questions like gender and race, or of what some have termed ‘re-enchantment’. Can we say beyond any doubt that a woman is a woman and a man is a man? If yes, can we also say that some art is beautiful and some isn’t? Can we say that a village or town has some essential, ineffable quality that cannot really die, no matter how it is mangled or paved over with strip malls, strip clubs, and strip mines? Can we say that man has an essence which cannot be changed, and therefore must be managed along concrete and objective moral lines?
Perhaps many of you here would conjecture that the answers to some of these questions is “yes”. Perhaps you’d even answer yes emphatically and absolutely. I believe that so much of the notion of “resisting the machine” may be predicated upon a collective intuition that there are limits to man, and that they are not oppressive but beautiful. The soul of the Nun is beautiful because she has accepted limits; she has taken up her Cross without ambiguity, and carries it in a fashion only she herself could. Had she denied these limits and embraced complete freedom – could she have lived as beautiful a life? Could a married man have done better to philander and carouse? Could a village do better as a globalized luxury Disneyland than as a simple affair with a covered bridge and a sawmill?
Therefore I have come by way of the long path to believe that limits are not only integral to human life, but present us with the greatest opportunities for beauty that could be imagined. To draw a hard line, to be a little ornery and cantankerous, to prize a gorgeous and provincial ignorance over and against a sophistication that bleaches all meaning out of human culture – these are the tasks of the burgeoning peasantry. Many of you here seem to intuit this idea in some form or other.
But my life as a traveler has been long. I have lived out of backpack for over eleven years, never staying anywhere longer than a few months. Each time I have packed, something in me is tickled and elevated, some wordless presence in me is sated and brought to rest, and as I lace my boots and don my rucksack I am light and edified and brimming with hope. Just the same, after so many weeks and months of wandering, I am exhausted. Traveling vast distances across foreign territory bites the soul, withers the pride, and sucks sleep from a man’s brain such that only a Saint could really endure it for long. It is obvious to me, after countless hours on the road and in airports and bus stations, that our technological amendments to the human penchant for travel have allowed us to move too far too fast.
Perhaps our metaphysical bodies cannot keep up with the automobile, much less the plane. At the risk of seeming almost dangerously superstitious, I wish to inquire into whether the soul can only move so quickly. Just as Medieval Catholics believed that some piece of the soul could escape the body during a sneeze, it may really be that as the jetplane fires up and the cabin door closes, some part of the soul falls out along the jetbridge, staked into its own purgatory at one’s place of departure, left to dry out, or dim, or evaporate.
These “leaving places” seem to stack up with the metaphysical detritus of departure; and consequently an eerie and transitory spirit is alive there. To sleep at a truckstop for a few days is to bear witness to the Fall of Man – the furtive drug-deals, the hasty, gruff interactions with cashiers, the litter and exhaust and bathroom stall graffiti. Dark-eyed men drive on through them, hauling the world above eighteen wheels, and somewhere in the speeding menagerie of upholstered seats in air–conditioned automobiles and truck cabs there is a space for you, the hitchhiker. And the thumb rises again with the sun, backpack in tow, and with a smile the hitchhiker leaves another chunk of his soul out in public, there in the dirt and sand of the road shoulder, never to be found again.
The same procedure can take place in a markedly more glamorous fashion, of course. Today’s Digital Nomads seem to have made quite the cottage industry out of shaking loose all of the metaphysical dross within man’s heart and littering foreign shores with it blithely. High-dollar internet jobs feed the habits – the beachside benders at Phuket and Goa and Cabo, the MDMA at Belgrade nightclubs, the Romanian whores and posh get-togethers and above all, the next plane tickets, used to scratch the ever-present itch to depart. Not all who travel are listlessly wandering, but from all I’ve ever encountered, these digital nomads are already living in purgatory, yet have not yet been granted the comforting grace of death. Perhaps this is because the speed, frequence, and irregularity causes them to leave their souls behind, and to be subsequently almost totally deracinated.
I must ask, as I consider what their antipode may be, whether Johnny Appleseed was a “nomad”. Could this exotic, sexy term – Nomad – be used for old Mister Appleseed? With a pot upon his cranium, he had no jet-plane, no accelerator, no screaming motorcycle engine. If demons move as quickly as I’ve ever known them to, Johnny’s defense against them was in the simple act of walking. If we can disabuse ourselves of the anti-metaphysical, materialist strain in modern culture, and accept that there is indeed a God, perhaps he was jolly, making us in His image to move slowly, foot by foot. Christ did not instruct us that “if anyone forces you to take one layover, go with him two” – He instructed us to walk, and indeed He made our bodies perfectly for the purpose. Walking is the ideal form of exercise, and walkers live longer. Johnny Appleseed himself walked clear from Massachusetts to Ohio many times, and lived to be the venerable old age of seventy years old.
Thinking of Johnny Appleseed seems necessary to me as both an American as a man who has fancied himself a nomad. Short of the Native peoples, of whom I am not a descendant, I have no connection to an anthropologically genuine nomadic culture on this side of the Atlantic. If you’re not a Native American, you can probably say the same. We are consequently ill-positioned to define just what “nomadic” could mean. Perhaps Johnny Appleseed is the solitary forerunner of the true American nomad.
A simple study of Nomadic peoples seems to show that most nomads hardly traveled very far in a year’s time. They generally moved to “halting grounds”, each suited to the season’s weather, and each a regular “haunt” – a term I find interesting given the possibility that one might be leaving some of their soul everywhere they depart from. In nearly 200,000 years of conjectured anthropological history of nomads, no known tribes have utilized planes, trains, automobiles, or diesel-powered ships for their primary mode of transit. Virtually all have walked, ridden animals, or canoed.
And indeed, Johnny Appleseed never made it Tucson or Tunisia – he made his jolly jaunts around the Ohio River Valley, planting apple trees and offering Swedenborgian sermons for the salvation of souls, quite possibility with a kitchen pot on his head as his only form of tribal dress. If we are to gratify the traveling urge in man while still embracing some kind of localism, perhaps we’d do well to imitate him well before we make a lifestyle out of driving and flying around the ends of the earth like speeding demons.
And so, in closing, I think it wise to state that localism and nomadism are not really at odds. So long as those with a nomadic impulse choose to gratify the urge to move within real and meaningful limits, they would not only edify their lives but decorate the region they hearken from as living ornaments of an ancient human tradition. Traveling a tight range, in a seasonally appropriate manner and chiefly by foot, or perhaps horseback or canoe, would yield a genuinely human nomadism. Barring these simple recommendations, I find it difficult to imagine a lasting, multi-generational nomadism in North America.
It it likely that this hackneyed thesis is flawed in some major way, or at a minimum incomplete, but I present it to you not as objective and hard-nosed catechism but for the stimulation of discussion. Let us not forget the nomadic history of humanity as we conceive of a localist future.
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