Collard Greens and Radicles: New Structures For Freedom After the Riot

It was late afternoon when Brennan appeared on my doorstep and asked for a firearm; “don’t worry,” he told me “I won’t hurt anyone but me.”

I had not seen him in months, and we all knew that he had been losing himself–sleeping on the streets, giving away everything he owned to strangers, talking about things nobody but he could understand. I cancelled my plans for the afternoon and we spent it together. We decided to walk to a community garden to collect some greens for dinner. It was difficult to keep him from wandering off, but I wanted to keep track of him.

The garden was an oasis of unkempt beds and weeds under a billboard on the edge of a busy South Berkeley street. The late afternoon light was golden, streaming gently through the chain link and falling on the delicate green life of the garden. We crouched on our knees, amongst weeds, collecting collard greens. “I don’t like these,” Brennan said. I asked why. “‘Collards’ reminds me of how crust punks keep their dogs. Tied up. Just like everything else. Why keep some plants and kill others? Why not let the weeds grow? Let the dogs free? It’s like language trying to break the world up into bits and own it. Nothing’s separate from anything else; that means I’m not me, not anyone. I’m free.”

At first the things he said had been incomprehensible to me, but now I understood him. In his own cryptic ways, he was articulating a way of thinking that pervades radical thought; his mental break had led him to deconstruct his way out of existence.

I was at a loss for words; I thought I agreed with him; I had for a long time supported these same ideas. Yet they hadn’t freed him. Instead, Brennan was falling apart, and confusing his own negation for freedom. It is a difficult distinction, and in my own way it was plaguing me too.

The dominant culture has imposed its strangling order on the universe through the violent imposition of conceptual and material borders. By defining them, its logic has built impermeable walls between self and society, between human and environment, between man and woman, between this nation and that nation, and it has used these concepts as fortifications, from which it has staged attacks of genocide, ecocide, gynocide, omnicide.

In this logic of compartmentalization, the specificities of things vanish; human beings become numerable, interchangeable, statistical units to vote in polling booths or die in wars; gender becomes absolute and invariant, invalidating each person’s unique relationship to their body; complex webs of ecological life are broken into acres of land, board feet of timber, dollars of revenue. To negate these categories dissolves the mental garrisons that underpin the dominant culture’s war for control.

As I reflected on Brennan’s words however, something came to me. One evening recently, a good friend had shown me an image of the beadwork made by the Huichol people of Nayarit. She is mestizo, but traces her heritage to them. The neat compositions of colorful geometric patterns, I had noticed, were strikingly similar to the wycinanki paper art of rural Poland, the land of my grandparents. Exploring as best I could the aesthetics of other land-based, non-capitalist cultures, I found this basic similarity everywhere: art characterized by an intense reverence for order. This stands defiantly out of place in the terrain of the Western imagination of indigenous cultures, which are so often fetishized for their supposedly chaotic, sensuous tendencies. It also stands in stark contrast to modern and post-modern Western art, which, from Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings to dubstep, punk rock, and noise music, seems to base itself on the opposite: an obsession with chaos.

This contrast seems to articulate a deep-seated shift in the collective imagination. For land-based cultures, it was order that guaranteed freedom–through the cycles of seasons, the coming of rains, the repetitions of days and nights. If this order failed, there was death. If order remained, there was the possibility of freedom. Cosmopolitan late-capitalism’s aesthetic departure from order signifies the opposite; in a world increasingly suffocated by order–in the grid of the city and the predictability of meaningless work and consumption–chaos instead, has come to hold the keys to freedom. The liberatory nature of structurelessness is not absolute then, but contextual.

That evening amongst the collards and weeds I realized that it was not structurelessness, but further order–the rains and seasons of language and category–that could bring Brennan home. “If the dogs ran free they could be hit by cars.” I mused, still testing my words. “And if we didn’t manage these garden beds, deciding which plants are weeds and which are not, we’d have no food. The dogs give up some freedom to get a different kind in exchange and so do we. If a relationship is a good one, we both end up freer than we began. Language is like that too.” I began feeling more confident. “We lose something by fracturing the world into concepts, but those concepts become tools for sharing experiences, building things, and making art. All relationships require losing some kind of freedom and gaining another. Relationships can be dangerous, but without them, without sacrificing a part of ourselves to cultivate food or friendships we cease to exist. We are the sum of our relationships–between sunlight, water, language, friends, stories and places; doing away with all relationships negates us; it creates death, not freedom. We can’t abolish structure, but we can critique and alter it. It’s by doing that that we can be free.”

He didn’t say anything for a while, still on his knees, head bent against the fading light, washed over by the sounds of cars. I figured that he hadn’t understood. He stared at the collards. Then I noticed a hint of tears in his eyes.

Language, logic, and morals are like gardens–cultivated by human hands and thoroughly managed. They are a tenuous coaxing of unstable patterns from the universe’s slip towards entropy; without cultivation, they quickly recede back into wilderness. This is the case with all life; each living strand utterly inseparable from its surroundings, constantly struggling to pull order from chaos to prolong the improbable imbalance of its existence. By encouraging a few plant and insect species while eliminating others, the garden is always simplistic, yet its simplicity cannot exist without the complexity of the non-human wild, for without soil microbes, water cycles, and pollinators, the garden would die. Similarly, constructed language and logic are co-produced by the ubiquitous and inarticulable grammar, language, and logic of our subjective experience, and the emergent tendencies of the universe.

Against the strangulating order of the global metropolis, it is tempting to fetishize what is structureless and inarticulable. We claim that the dominant culture’s logical constructs are illegitimate because they are not absolute, not naturally occurring. Because no morality or logical structure is naturally occurring, we are unable to offer anything to fill the void that is left when we deconstruct the dominant logic. We un-define all definitions, we riot, denature, and let the weeds grow. And yet it is not the total negation of moral and logical structure that will bring us freedom. Instead, it will be the propagation of new kinds of order to feed us–many different kinds that are, like gardens, dependent on the sun angles and rain patterns place and context. Deconstruction is only the beginning of our struggle, not the end, for the recognition of a logically and morally relative universe is not a justification for logical and moral void, but a call to find our own collective, radical, moral and logical systems. If anything, it makes this even more imperative.

Radical is colloquially defined as ‘that which lies outside or in contradiction to prevailing order–it is reactive, defined by what it is not. This kind of radical moves a system by pushing it from outside, and must remain marginal to retain its identity. However, the word has another interpretation. In the structure of plants, the ‘radicle’ is the genesis point of a root. Framing ‘radical’ in this light suggests a system of critique or counter-logic that challenges a social system down to its roots and sees its many manifestations as connected and mutually constitutive. In this sense, it is opposed to liberalism, which sees social ills as separate issues to be confronted in isolation. This kind of radicalism is a coherent system of logical critique that can suggest the possibility of an alternative world–defined by what it is, rather than what it is not.

The 21st century will be an era of structural breakdown within the dominant culture, as well as the Earth’s climactic and ecological systems. This breakdown constitutes a sort of mass-psychosis, in which centuries or millennia of evolutionary adaptation towards order melt into unpredictability. In this unfolding world, radical movements that champion structurelessness will rapidly lose their liberatory potential. It is within a world like this that the streamlined ultra-logic of fascism can take hold, and has before. The juxtaposition of punk rock and wycinanki attest to this: if chaos reigns, structure will emerge as a liberatory tendency. As radicals, we will need new ways of organizing suited to a world that is slipping towards breakdown–a critique that is radical, constructive, and actively building alternative futures; deconstructing the dominant order to clear space, and building something new there with the intent to inhabit it.

I lost track of Brennan the next morning. He woke up in the room my partner and I share, said “good morning” and walked out the front door, never returning. Weeks later, he contacted his family and asked them to find him. His condition wasn’t cured by our conversation, but it offered a spectacular moment of crystallization and clarity that I hope may have helped him to reach out to his family later. That evening we sat on the porch. He talked about his psychosis, and analyzed himself. “I wish I’d never gone down this road,” he said “this way of thinking isn’t helping me.” We played music together for hours. He said he had not felt so in control of himself in months, that he wanted this feeling back. For that brief moment, I met my old friend again.

Against the environment – towards a decolonial bioregionalism

Even within the city, we are made of the land and context. Our bodies are about 60% water by mass, and every drop tells a story. For us in the Bay Area, this water probably evaporated from the Pacific Ocean, near the Gulf of Alaska. It crossed the rocky coast of Northern California, the rolling mountain redwood forests of the Coast Range, and the golden Central Valley. It rose over the chaparral and scrub oak foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and higher over bristling pine forests. Above the tree line, it froze into tiny crystals and softly blanketed high granite peaks and passes. In the spring, it flowed in creeks full of trout across wildflower fields populated by deer and black bears. It entered torrential streams, roaring into whiteness and crushing boulders before settling down into slower, meandering rivers. Our bodies are tiny rivulets in the water’s cycle back to the sea. This story is knitted into us intimately; it is the story of our region and place.

To think of ourselves as separate from this tumult of life around and within us is to amputate ourselves from our own bodies, and our larger body — community, region, and biosphere. This amputation has always been the taproot of institutional power, from the moment a million tiny deities climbed up from the rivers and mountains into heaven to form a human male God, to the moment the common lands of Europe were enclosed and rural populations were herded into the first industrial metropolises, to the reflection of this genesis in their colonies, where indigenous peoples were locked into slave plantations to extract the raw materials those metropolises would process. This uprooting decontextualizes human labor and identity from the fabric of ecology and place and redirects it for the production of surplus value. Likewise, the labor of the land itself is exploited for surplus, as tilled soil struggles to create life and dammed rivers struggle to flow toward the sea, condemned to create profit along the way.

The result has been a more complicated story of our water: After its journey in mountains and meandering rivers, the water inside us was stopped up behind dams that interrupt migrating fish, forming reservoirs that inundate valleys once inhabited by indigenous peoples and grizzly bears and wolves and countless other species. The water within us was then pumped in concrete channels across lands smothered by industrial agriculture and into underground pipes, and filtered and sterilized in massive treatment plants before hissing out of the kitchen sink, without a murmur to inform us of its journey.

Acknowledging this whole story is to acknowledge that our bodies are made not only of ice crystals, alpine meadows, and muddy life, but also of industry, fences, and sterility. We are made of the system that oppresses us, along with the vitality that remains to oppose it. The imagined separation between self and other protects us from acknowledging the presence of this wasteland within us, while keeping us from recognizing the meadows and wildflowers that live there, too.

It is this same dichotomization between self and other that undergirds the insidious invention of the “Environment.” In the Environment, ecology — a web of mutually constitutive relationships between organic and inorganic phenomena, both human and non-human — becomes safely ghettoized. The Environment, by definition, is outside of us, devoid of humanness, an inanimate surrounding object that presupposes the existence of a homogenous human subject that acts on it. This subject is the binary opposite to “Environment” and is called “Humanity.” In Humanity, all human communities are framed as having more in common with an abstract human totality than with the non-humans and land with which they may have lived for countless generations — separate from the plants and animals that grant them food and from the landscapes that structure history, identity, and systems of logic. In this way, the concept of indigeneity is erased from comprehension.

Framed as a static landscape, the Environment can be fragmented without being negated. In this way, certain lands can be defined as legitimately “natural,” while others are deemed violable; parklands are fenced off and made into museums, while just beyond the fence other lands are torn open in search of minerals or plowed under for industrial agriculture. Like Environment, Humanity — framed as a unified subject — can uproot cultures without negating them. Like parklands, a select few human cultures are designated as legitimate, while others are suppressed. Removed from context in living communities and the land, dominant cultures are sterilized and taught in state schools and media, while just outside their borders, a war is constantly raging against organic cultures that are vivified by the land and human communities themselves. These cultures are feared because they are living, because they are ungovernable from outside, because they demand, by their very existence, a certain kind of anarchy and ecology that is incompatible with the state and monoculture. Organic cultures are deemed illegitimate by the architects of manufactured state culture and are violently broken.

As these relationships that constitute human beings, human communities, and ecological systems are fragmented, languages and cosmologies are lost, along with species of life and entire ecosystems. This loss of specificity constitutes a loss of memory and cognition. Human and ecological communities process and store information in tendencies and physical forms. These patterns are the result and expression of a playful process of evolution — dabbling in chaos and experimenting with possibilities for life, then keeping what works within a changing context; learning and remembering. When these relationships of cognition and memory are broken, chaos presides and behavior becomes increasingly erratic, entropic, and unpredictable — mega-hurricanes stumble through the Gulf and up the eastern coast of the United States, while lonely youth quietly sneak assault rifles into movie theaters and elementary schools. This psychosis is the final ‘enclosure of the commons.’ As social, ecological, and climactic systems experience breakdown, psycho-pharmaceuticals, virtual reality, GMOs, and geo-engineering begin truly making themselves the only means of further delaying their own catastrophic repercussions. Yet we need new directions. To find them, we must first re-orient ourselves.

Overcoming disorientation and psychosis means rebuilding unmediated relationships between us as humans, and between our human communities and the land, breaking the binary of Environment and Humanity. It means seeing human and non-human struggles for autonomy as parallel and interlinked and working together to assert our collective ambition for self-determination locally. Eventually, it means disabling capital’s urge for simplification and control and allowing the complexity and autonomy of ecology to flourish once again, both in our human communities and in our broader communities of land and place.

A critical step in this direction is the process of sharing local histories told from a diversity of perspectives. Voices of the descendants of this land’s indigenous peoples must be given special heed in this conversation, but the appropriation of indigenous cultures must be understood as counter-productive. The goal, I think, ought to be the creation of something new, beginning here and now. Learning ecological history is necessary, too, and while the phrase “listening to the land” probably seems quaint or metaphorical to most of us, the land does speak its own history. Hiking through the forests of Santa Cruz or Marin, one might notice the ancient redwood stumps that make the tall trees of today look like toothpicks. They are the remnants of the forest that grew there before European conquest, and trees that had been thousands of years old when they were felled. Stories like this are audible everywhere — if we listen for them.

For Bay Area anarchists, this conversation is especially challenging. It seems to me that we have a tendency to locate our movement’s identity in our status as internationally allied cultural outcasts, rather than working to re-constitute our movements as inclusive and situated. When standing against a system of exploitation that is global in scale, opposition ought to be global. However, I believe that only by creating strong local alternatives to capitalism and capitalist culture will we have the strength and resilience to challenge the monoculture of Empire.

As part of this process, I think that radical organization in the Bay needs to expand from its urban focus and build networks with rural communities regionally. Just outside the city, suburbs devour the land, small farmers are foreclosed on, species vanish, and the radical right rises. Counteracting this means posing new visions and praxis in this region that include avenues of participation for people outside our milieu.

Coming together to articulate our own locally situated histories amongst deeply differing experiences and complex relationships with power will be, and already is, a long and difficult road with no distinct endpoint. This conversation also necessarily includes material shifts in structures of power. This means collectively fighting to reclaim space and relationships — physically, cognitively, culturally, discursively, and economically — then inhabiting and defending them. It means cultivating and preserving collective particularities and keeping the capitalist market out. It means seeing the land’s struggle for autonomy as interlinked with and, ultimately, inseparable from the struggles of human communities for self-determination.

Moments of ecological rebellion are everywhere, even in the city. Weeds vivaciously fill Oakland’s vacant lots while bats and swallows roost under freeway overpasses and defiantly raise their children there. By night, raccoons and coyotes wander deep into the city, battling house cats and burglarizing homes. This rebellion flows through our own human experiences: in the spontaneous commons that ignite when we occupy plazas or squat houses, in the way we support our friends and raise children even in grimy and cramped apartments, or on the streets. It is embodied in the nighttime wanderings of graffiti artists and dumpster divers.

Maintaining the order of generality and monoculture is a constant policing effort against the spontaneous anarchic desire of ecology. Yet every breach of the dominant order of the metropolis, every solidarity and organic specificity of place we assert signifies a possibility for some world that evades this matrix of control. The conversation of these moments together begins to articulate a common particularity to our place and lives from which we might write our own stories and create our own praxis together, against monoculture, and for our collective — but particular — socio-ecological and bioregional liberation.