Making a Life at the End of the World
By Lisa Wells
“Believers” is a young woman’s book of wandering at a time when our human footprint on earth matters more than ever. Lisa Wells follows a cast of unruly and colorful characters who believe their work on the land and with one another is a healing force. Sometimes it is, sometimes it misses the mark. Eccentrics, New Agers, old radicals, they struggle to go beyond what the essayist Adam Phillips calls the “nostalgia” of “apocalyptic thinking.” And this is the pull of Wells’s wanderings, both her false starts and satisfying journeys: She never loses sight of her inspired objective, to restore and revive what she refers to as “the promised land.”
In Wells’s long introduction, she states that the “point of no return” is the background as well as the “central prophecy” of her book. To address the problem of desertification, for example, it might be better first to give up on a romanticized, imagined past. It is of course necessary to see what a vertiginous decline we have experienced when it comes to the earth’s bounty — we learn here that before contact, the Sierra Miwok in California feasted on 48 different species of greens. But Wells’s focus is on those who have accepted the reality of our changed planet and are trying to move forward — people like Tao Orion, a permaculture expert who plants “experimental gardens” that will provide an amenable home for species uprooted from their indigenous climates, or Wells’s friend who has started “rewilding” Portland, Ore.
Wells makes her way to an Oregon town fittingly named Sparta to meet and to travel with the itinerant Finisia Medrano, whose book, “Growing Up in Occupied America,” had whetted Wells’s curiosity. But nothing prepared her for Medrano’s tirades, her stories of long-haul travels by horse-drawn wagon and love-fests of planting, walking, arguing, smoking, swearing that made her difficult to fully understand. Digging, planting and gathering seed, she rumbles across the country, battling the police and landowners, fueled by her passion for growing native plants in a world badly damaged by land theft and industrial agriculture. But for all of Wells’s commitment to visiting those well-meaning eccentrics, she encounters much physical hardship and verbal rebuke. When Wells gets sick at one point, Medrano harangues her: “How healthy do you think you are? You probably look as poisoned as that landscape around you. You’re probably as devastated as those woods in Oregon. You’re probably as polluted as Fukushima.”
Wells visits a raft of other “believers”: urban scouts, professional trackers, a group of environmentalist Christians who practice “watershed discipleship” and a bunch of restoration radicals attempting to reverse desertification in the Middle East’s cradle of civilization. In California she meets a North Fork Mono elder whose traditional ecological knowledge is wisely used to combat wildfire and drought. Her Portland friend, Peter, works with performance artists to educate people about how we are ruining the land, and who, like all of her subjects, is attempting “to move beyond cynicism and despair.”
The urgency to live sustainably stems from the cascading woes of collapsing ecosystems, and Wells implores her readers to start thinking creatively. Among the causes of climate chaos is the fact that land is so degraded that rainwater cannot penetrate the soil, as well as the demise of snow and ice cover, which has affected albedo, the amount of solar heat that is radiated back into space, impacting the cooling of Earth. It is critical to come up with ambitious ideas, like sequestering airborne carbon. Something as straightforward as the large-scale regeneration of perennial grasslands could mitigate or even reverse climate change.
Three-quarters of the way through her book, Wells gives up on her series of immersive jaunts with “believers” and steps back to draw on the thoughts and writings of others. We miss the outrageous forays, the wrong turns and the tangled ways her rootlessness drives her. Somewhere she loses her thread and fails to fully break through. Her own “promised land” is always elsewhere.
The British nature writer Richard Mabey reminds us that we are all Indigenous to wherever we are, and that the wild is right here “in the scream of the swifts over cities and the worm under the plow.” Wells’s final request, that we learn to work cooperatively and live in the loving embrace of true communities, tells only part of the story. Nature is the embrace, and if Wells digs in deeply enough wherever she is standing, she will find that nature’s long arms have always been twined through and around her.