Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections

Jeb Loy Nichols | 13th January 2022

In the final instalment of our annual Shadows and Reflections series, Jeb Loy Nichols looks back over 2021.

Photo by Loriane Morley


I go out walking in the new morning, the new year two days away, watching a pair of crows fall and twist in the grey sky; I try and fail to make sense of the day, the week, the year.  I’m reminded of a creation myth that I once read, from the Yup’ik Indians of southern Alaska.  There was a time (so says the myth) when there were no people on the earth.  After thousands of years of peaceful life, the first man was born from out of a pea pod.  A raven appeared, raised its wings and said, where have you come from?  The man pointed at the pea pod.  The raven said, I made that plant and all the others and I’ve never seen anything like you.  The man stood up and said, what am I?  The raven, who knew well all the makings of the land, said, a mistake, a malignancy, a sickness.  The man said, perhaps I am, but nonetheless I’m here.  The raven said, you’re my mistake so I shall deal with you.  And with that he ate the man, as he often ate slugs or caterpillars.  He flew away and the next day had a terrible stomach ache.  In the night he died.  The next morning his belly split open and out walked the man.  He returned to the pea patch where he waited a thousand years for another human to appear.  This time it was a woman and together they went forth into the world.  From that day to this they have blundered across the land, unable to not be the thing they are, a creeping sickness.

Last night someone told me that Bruce Springsteen has sold his publishing for 500 million dollars.  500.  Million.  Dollars.  He’s also recently written a book with Barack Obama, who is worth in excess of 80 million dollars.  A politician and a musician, each one richer than God.  The grotesque horror of this is impossible to put into perspective.  The idea that one person can have 500 million dollars while others have nothing is a perfect illustration of the diseased heart of humanity.  I understand that the accumulation of wealth is sometimes beyond our control.  You write a hit song (or get elected to public office) and suddenly, through no fault of your own, you’re rich.  OK.  It happens.  The only acceptable option at that point, the only creative option, is to get rid of the money.  It becomes a simple question – are you an egalitarian or an elitist?  Either you live simply, in a modest house, travel as little as possible, eat sensibly, or you live like a king.  How much money do you need?  After all, everyone can be poor, only an elite few can be rich.  If Springsteen gave away all 500 million tomorrow, he’d still be unspeakably wealthy next week.  The maintenance of great wealth is the new slave trade.  Utterly indefensible and wicked.  Wealth generated and multiplied by a system that brutally exploits and divides humanity (not to mention animals and the earth) is something to be ashamed of, not applauded.  To be rich is to be in league with those things most awful and most unacceptable.  The mega rich are the new slave masters.

I must learn to say no.  I must learn to say: I don’t want to do that.  I don’t want to participate.  I prefer to be uncertain and uncomfortable and lost.  I prefer to be damaged.  To be scared is better than being entitled.  I want to be away from wealth and glamour and success.  Wealth is terrorism.  A display of potency.  A performance.  All volume and flash.  It has a single message: I’m the important one here and everything else, the less rich, the inhuman, the useless, the failures, are of no interest to me.  

Can you tell me what is gained by the constant whirl and flash in which we spend our lives?  What do we achieve?  What’s accomplished?  What do we learn?  What do we make better?  Surely the better way is inaction.  Do little.  Do less than is expected.  In every human relationship force defeats itself. Be as humble as water is; in a thousand years water will wear away stone, metal, earth.  Water wins. 

I’m not, believe me, trying to glamorise poverty.  I know how debilitating it can be.  I know about the sleepless nights, the gut churning fear.  I know how things can go suddenly wrong.  I’ve seen it, I’ve been there.  I’ve spent the night in a storm of anxiety, listing my failures, envisioning new disasters.  I wait for the morning.  The night offers me no solace.  Morning comes.  I watch a single crow land in the sycamore tree.  I imagine myself inside the bird, my bones suddenly light, my feet sharp.  I look down on my doings, my house, my muddy pond, my weed-choked garden, and fly away.

I have a friend who doesn’t want to take the vaccine.  It is, she says, a pharmaceutical answer to a profoundly non-pharmaceutical question.  No one ever addresses the root causes.  Frantic global consumerism and exploitation of animals, desperate greed, the swirling cocktail of chemicals and pharmaceuticals and military paranoia, it all goes on and on.  Just as the new virus and its army of mutations will go on and on as well.  When they develop a vaccine against greed and capitalism and nationalism and growth, she says, I’ll take that.  Oh, wait, she says, they already have.  It’s called Having Less.

On occasion I scrunch further into darkness.  Make myself skeletal and teeny.  It’s true that I’m mostly empty handed, that there are certain levels of damage, that I’ve thought myself into a jam.  I wish to be less hectic in my notions, have my thoughts be kinder.  I want to close my eyes.  I could add something here about the uncertain pathways of memory; about ice cream, about long walks, about faithful pets, about the first touch of private places, about expectations, about the specific shape and feel of a lover’s foot, about the last small thing you hear before you give in to sleep.

And what’s the deal with this guy who’s building rocket ships and planning to go to Mars?  He says he can’t live on a planet that doesn’t have ‘interplanetary ambitions’.  He talks about ‘industrialising space’.  He wants to build space stations and fill the skies with communication satellites.  He’s already launched sixty thousand of them.  He wants to build electric driverless cars and have ‘interactive highways’.  He wants a future that sees space as a holiday destination.  There are, as I write this, three multi-millionaires up there, each of them having paid him millions of dollars for the privilege.  My thought is this:  sit quietly in a room for two hours doing nothing.  Then take a three mile walk.  Then come back and be quiet.  Repeat.  That’s a life.  As Walt Whitman said, a mouse is miracle enough.

Can we not be content with rosemary and mint, with fresh bread, with the sound of rain on the roof, with simple jobs for which we’re adequately paid, for small thoughts and small deeds?  Is it not enough to simply live and admire and be thankful for this beautiful place?