The World Seen from a Hilltop

There are times when the world is best seen from the top of an old lava flow tens of miles from the nearest collection of humanity. At certain moments 2 million years ago this spot was alternately sending forth red splatters of rock, like giant Roman candles, and andesite lavas flowing up from a long vertical crack variously 20 to 50 feet wide and nearly a mile long. How deep? Deep enough to reach beneath the earth’s crust into the molten mantel!

The rock tells the story. Following the ascending volcanic dike to its crest, a wall of the red pebbly splatter rock lay hard against the cold andesite lava that had long ago poured out building this hill and flowing into the surrounding basins. But, the land is now only a collection of clues – if that is how one sees it. Or it is what it is: hills and valleys, temporary streams and canyons.

As I walked and scrambled up the broken piles of rock toward the top of the old vent, a mule deer whistled below telling all and sundry that I was there. A few minutes later it whistled again and then once more. I had seen her tracks, quite fresh, in a hidden curve of the dike wall lower down and wondered how nearby the deer might be. The sound was shockingly familiar, like the hands-clasp whistle that my son uses to call his dog; and for a moment I searched the valley below me with binoculars looking for some other human walking in this remote place. (Later, as I returned to my evening spot, the deer hopped out of hiding, crossed the valley and disappeared into the tiny trees of an adjoining hillside. I watched its hindquarters disappear into heavy cover, and then, like the closing scene from Harry and the Hendersons, parts of several deer appeared briefly in the spaces between the trees and just as rapidly disappeared into the tall brush.)

I sat on the top of the tall hill, sat on the lava that for a few moments all those many years ago was 2000º F and pushing up out of the earth making a terrible mess of this place – it would have been catastrophe for the plants and animals living here. But the serenity and beauty of the present moment would not let me delve too far into the conflagration that visited, and built, this area over the space of about a million years, over a hundred or so square miles, all fed by about 100 volcanic vents like the one upon which I sat.

The serenity and beauty of this place and this moment also formed the mansion of experience in which to contemplate the present conflagration that was “flowing” in from only several miles away, but from millions of “vents” spread, literally, over the whole surface of the earth.

Not to be too dramatic, though perhaps unavoidably: the lights from Los Alamos shine down on this place. Oppenheimer, Groves, Teller and many others have seen this landscape from their physical and intellectual aerie as they plotted and, others like them, continue to plot several of the potential futures of the world: the atomic and hydrogen bombs born on the pyroclastic ash-flows from a super-volcano! But this was not on my mind more than as the recollection of the previous color that a room might have been painted; no, from this hilltop, looking out over the valleys and hills of this old volcanic shield, seeing the lights of Los Alamos to the west, Santa Fe to the east, the glow of Albuquerque to the south, it was the class war of the worlds that came into focus.

Sitting there at the crest of the long volcanic dike as the sun was setting, a geological feature called a ‘hog back’, my lack of being alone was more than palpable; it was reality. The doe just down the hill was, without question, giving my presence her attention; this was the center of the range of a mountain lion that I had once caught napping in a shaded canyon and had recently seen tracks and scat nearby; though unseen, coyotes were coming out to hunt all around me and would sing to me later in the evening; and all the smaller mammals: skunks, cottontails, jacks, the various rats and mice. I listened for them, watched the changing light define and undefine the land shapes in which they were certainly walking, stalking and secreting themselves.

Ravens flew in, 2 by two, calling to each other, swinging by overhead to have a look and treating me to the whoosh whoosh of their wing beats. I was of little interest, too far from their cliffs and had no visible long gun, a recognition that they make most readily. Other than their occasional sounds the rest was an embracing silence.

These partners in the experience of the moment were also part of my considerations. I was not alone in this place – not far away from “real life” under the twinkling lights. I was here, on purpose, to be with the creatures of the desert hills. I was here to feel my life in communion with theirs, seeking a different context. I was here to be free of language, to be hungry for every sound, every sight of movement; here to be free of level floors and paths, to walk on the uneven earth; here to be free of comfort, to feel the cold wind, to have to shield my eyes from the low angled sun.

So I sat on the hilltop and felt my way through the wash of sub-verbal ideas: the 100 thousand people in the valley east, west, north and south were an anxiety, an empathy, as I looked around beyond the low hills; their lives, hopes and dreams, rushed by like a super-speed fast-forward, all montaged together as in a bad movie; reaching out beyond the hills, beyond the Rio Grande Valley, beyond the western high plains to the coasts and on over the oceans; a billion voices in the whoosh whoosh of the raven’s wing.

It was really pretty simple: humans possess biological capacities that have been adapted into very powerful designs, and have lost control of the power that changes the world around them; and some humans had collected to themselves such vast power that a madness has been created in them beyond all help. All the behaviors, instincts and feelings that matter have been swept aside by domination of physical spaces, ability to carry out almost any desire, domination and control of other people, feelings of omnipotence and omniscience: the madness of power over others rather than the communion of common purpose.

The human species is ultimately flawed. The primate social pattern of domination, long since obsolete as an adaptive device, continues to be expressed in our economics and politics; and is now imbued with physical and organizational powers thousands, even millions, of times that which both enforced and inhibited the actions of our ancestors. We adapt, in our expectations and behaviors, to our present powers and the conditions that surround us and yet still feel about and act on them with the emotions of a tribal primate.

For all the complexity in the human world, our situation comes down to a class of humans acting in every possible circumstance to advance their interests without regard to the costs that are inflicted on living others and the future. As long as there is a significant surplus of material and services available, the native design of human species will move some of its members to try and collect that excess to their control. This creates the basis for an escalating process of wealth accumulation with primate hierarchical social patterns transforming into aberrant power-dominated class systems.

This process can take on a hundred different forms, and so confuses us. Those who follow this course as capitalists claim that it is the socialists that are making trouble and the communists say that it is the capitalists who trample people’s rights to the right kind of wealth. So-called Christians team up with capitalists and another set of Christian beliefs finds more commonality with socialists, yet both act with antagonism toward atheists or Muslims. And on it goes.

The one “religion” that seems to cut across all of these lines of difference is excesses of power and wealth: the obscenely rich may fight among themselves, but it is mutual understanding of their common relationship to the rest of humanity that draws them into communion for the maintenance of wealth, power and privilege: the actions that are needed to extract an abundance of wealth from the labors and fears of the human herd are a blood-bond for the elite.

The elite of Roman abused the common folk. The elite of Europe abused the common folk, first at home and then abroad in their colonies. The elite in the old Soviet Union abused the common folk. The elite in China have and are abusing the common folk. The elite in the US are abusing the common folk. The elite in India are abusing the common folk. The elite of the major institutional religions abuse the common folk. And in places where the common folk are not being abused, the elite are preparing conditions of the global economy to abuse them. When there is sufficient stored and tradable excess converted to private wealth, 10, 20, 50 times greater than basic need meeting wealth, this will always be the outcome.

If I can’t imagine life except within the circle of the distant lights, the whole package of “goods” must be accepted: mining, smelting, manufacturing, retailing; economic growth, progress, wealth accumulation and power; the overcoming of meaninglessness with the meaningless.

How is it possible to live without the light switch, without unlimited access to TV, refrigeration, wifi, year round 70º F regardless of ambient temperature, unlimited choices and supplies of food and ‘consumer goods?’ Who and how many would give these up willingly? And in these questions lies the understanding of the elite; who and how many would give up willingly absolute power to have and do as they wish, to live with impunity, and what actions would be taken to maintain such power?

The question isn’t what is happening so much as what can be done. What are the global responses; what are the personal responses?

It is easy to say that wealthy and corporate interests have leveraged their increasing control of economic and political institutions to the point that the primary legal foundation of the US and much of the world must be broken to accommodate them – these foundations, as habits of practice and expectations, have already been bent as far as they will go. It is what we, as a people, accept as correct and honorable, applied consistently and to an extreme – an extreme that we never intended – that is the essential engine driving us to this place.

Like all movements we have our prophets: Henry George, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, C. Wright Mills, E. F. Schumacher, Hervé Kempf, Joe Bageant, Noam Chomsky, David Cay Johnston, Chris Hedges, Chris Glugston, George Monbiot, Paul Craig Roberts, Herman Daly, Bill Mckibben, Derrick Jensen and dozens of notable others, most you will never have heard of, like Coralie Koonce who has written very readable, and scholarly, books bringing all of the issues together. And there are many many more, completely ignored by the media and the “world of influence”, who work everyday to better understand and to better inform their fellows of the grave danger and the hard choices that the immediate future holds.1

It is so clear a summary of their work, and that of my companions on the hilltop, that great wealth must not be in private hands; human hands must belong to the same class – the human class. And the amount of wealth extracted and sequestered outside of the movement of environmental processes must be reduced to the barest minimum. Humans must take less from the total energy flux and material cycles. The human pleasures of life, and there are many, must and do come primarily from communion with our fellows, both human and non-human; we must again learn to distrust inventions of behavior and objects that separate us. All of this and more will come, if it comes at all, with the greatest of effort, pain and great luck.

As I sat on the hilltop all of these thoughts went through my mind as movements of emotion, as wordless sensations guided by the far away city lights. What was real was the doe below me in the cactus meadow. We were both occupying the same space in the desert hills with our similarities and differences. She was about 170 pounds, young, strong; sharp eyes, ears and sense of smell; fleet of foot and dangerous with sharp hoofs. She knew the terrain, the plants, where to find water, the dangers from mountain lions, coyotes, and humans. I am 170 pounds, old and strong enough, in a weak sort of way (I could not hop across the 200 meters to the trees in a few seconds). I have weak eyes that need prostheses; my hearing has been damaged by years in noisy places and especially the use of firearms; I can smell things placed under my nose and sewage treatment plants. I know the area in a general sort of way. I am very dangerous with a big pistol at hand and very fast, though limited, on a motorcycle. I can build a fire. I can think ahead. My delicate feet are cased in fine boots; my cold-prone head is cased in a wool fleece cap. My hairless, thin-skinned body is cased in wool and out-door approved synthetics. I have, in my panniers, food, water, emergency sleeping bag, flashlight, cameras, campstool and other useful items. I can leave this place if I wish.

The doe belongs here. Her lineage almost certainly goes back thousands of years in this general area, perhaps 1500 generations. 1500 generations for me would include the episodic pulses out from the African cradle, the cave painters of southern Europe, the explorers of the west Asian steppes and the intrepid probers at the Beringia passage to North America.2 Not only do I bring the ideas and concerns of the present intellectual world to this hilltop, but also the generational history of a good part of the earth; where I belong is a matter of conjecture.

The deer should whistle a warning again and again, louder and louder, until all can hear it.

  1. I apologize if I have left out one of your favorite prophets, my point in making a compact list is that there are many – enough to make up the rooster of a baseball team or of a representative body. []
  2. There are two ways to make such comparisons: directly with years; this area would have begun repopulating with the present fauna about 6000 years ago (after suffering a stifling thousand year drought), or by the number of generations comparing the number of birthing cycles which would indicate the degree to which the present population is related to the population of the past. []

James Keye is the nom de plume of a biologist and psychologist who after discovering a mismatch between academe and himself went into private business for many years. His whole post-pubescent life has been focused on understanding at both the intellectual and personal levels what it is to be of the human species; he claims some success. Email him at: Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.