A Hollow Way

It’s a new year, bless us, a time to think about doing things differently. Resolutions and all that.

I was thinking about this when I came across a reference by writer Jim Harrison to Britain’s “hollow ways.” Many hollow ways are old Roman cart paths that are deeply eroded. Some are 20 feet deep and full of impenetrable thickets and brambles. That seems like a pretty good metaphor for old ways of thinking and doing.

Harrison mentioned hollow ways to poet Gary Snyder in The Etiquette of Freedom (companion book to the documentary, The Practice of the Wild). Snyder and Harrison were talking about broadening our understanding of “the Wild,” describing a wild new way of thinking about the Wild.

Snyder defines “nature” as more than the conventional picturebook outdoors. Nature refers to the whole universe.  “The Wild,” he says, is the process of nature, the becoming of the universe. The wild happens everywhere, even on city streets, even in the hollow ways. You don’t have to be in the Cascades to experience with wild.

I don’t think we can avoid the experience of the wild. I’m thinking of the cells of a sedentary couch potato who would seem about as tamed as a human could get. But his cells are processing their inputs and outputs. He is becoming right along with a distant galaxy, although he may not approach the latter’s glory. Try as we might, we can’t withdraw from time and process. We can, however, limit our future possibilities by keeping to the paths of yesterday.

To wake up to the process of the wild in a fully human way we have to always be open to the new. Though no less wild, the hollow ways are made of yesterday’s roads. This openness isn’t a complete break with the past, with tradition, with individual or cultural continuity.  Culturally, such a break would be nonsense because it would escape knowable context.

For all the potential of a dynamic democracy, for all the legend and lore about the nation’s courageous, self-reliant, pioneering spirit, America remains politically uncomfortable with the new. Democracy was invented in part to keep a people open to change. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that our political practices are designed precisely to resist change. Our political practices – the roles of money and deceptive advertising, deceit as an acceptable standard of debate – are an ugly companion to our Constitution.

As marketing gurus know, there’s nothing better than to present something as “new.” Consumers (an old category!) just have to have the newest app, hear the newest song, keep up with the newest hit TV series.

All these newbies inhabit a media universe that is really a kind of virtual hollow way. It reinforces a conservative dread of real change by making passive consumerism seem like a road to adventure. There’s nothing safer than the “new” laundry detergent, especially when it feels daring to buy it.

Real political change will continue to elude us until we attack the problems of people’s fear of change and the exploitation of that fear by the political pickpockets who want us to keep our change in the same place.

Still, those who keep to the hollow ways ultimately become hollow humans. Sooner or later, the hollow become weightless and the Wild takes them like a wind takes dry leaves. Stubbornly resistant to change, they become victims of a change they themselves brought about.

America is in need of dramatic change, in our relations with one another, in our political practices, in the way we treat the earth on which we live. Bring it on.

Photo by Nicolas under GNU Free Documentation License

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith