CW: mentions of rape
In January, we watched Avatar 2, which was three and a half hours long, and I only had to pee once. The aliens won, and we emerged, hesitantly, into the four floors and basement of the Palisades Center: a complex that can only be called a megamall. Women in kiosks hawked marijuana-infused gummies at us. We purchased them. The spinal column of the mall contained a multi-storied ropes course, and looking down across the four identical floors below us, I felt what I imagined I would feel when I see the wolf in the speargrass. The beast coming on to me. Spectral eyeshine flickering and spitting. It wants me to know it’s there.
The mall subsists off this commercial carnivory. It sees its market competitors shot down by poachers and clings to a predatory mode of survival.
All these metabolic forces coursed through non-descript, neatly tiled hallways. Latticed security gates shuttered defunct storefronts. Things smelled new, recently developed. We participated in the Carnivalesque and left.
A few days after the excursion, a teacher whom I knew for years and had considered a mentor was charged with rape of a minor. Boys I knew came forward. The attorney representing one victim said, “From what I know, this is one of the most disturbing cases I’ve ever seen in my career. And I’ve been around the block.” In infinite wisdom, he predicted that the case would cause “a chilling in the community.” All the small-scale, local magazines tore it apart.
My friends texted me, “I’m still in shock. How did none of us hear anything about it.”
My mom texted me, “Please keep reaching out to your younger brother. It’s a lot for him to go through alone.”
That day, local TV crews showed up at our all-boys high school, and I texted my younger brother, and he didn’t respond. I wrote in my journal, “In the spring, my brother escaped the werewolf by cutting the tops off strawberries and tossing them to our chickens, who were ravenous and would eat anything we fed them.” And then, I scratched it out. Then, I wrote it down again exactly the same way.
These days, it feels easy to feel like everything is after you. There are a million wolves hiding in the environmental substrate I’ve called speargrass. The reality is that they’re not even wolves. When they get home in the evening, they take off the wolfskin and look just like us. The wolves are anything and everything that preys on us. These deceiver-wolves who walk quietly through the neighborhoods and eat up little boys.
In the Prose Edda, a wolf named Enemy swallows up the moon at the end of the world.
It feels like we inhabit a hostile world, and we seem to be witnessing the failure of major systems of all types: social, political, economic, biological, climatic, ecological, spiritual. We can draw lines linking collapsing networks with fatalistic ease. We know where the wolves are hiding; they’ve moved into the megamall.
My friends worry deeply that capitalist aesthetics have stalled culture. This essay is not about that.
I devour a grotesque amount of music by Alex G, formerly known as Sandy Alex G, and Alex Giannascoli before that. His most recent album, “God Save the Animals,” received significant and well-deserved critical acclaim. Reviewers invented terms like “hyperfolk” to categorize the genre the artist has assembled for himself. The lyricism sounds acceptably complex. The instrumentation feels radically homegrown. And there’s a marked difference from some of his earlier material, which is washed in a sort of Philadelphian lo-fi melancholia.
Alex has a kid on the way, with band member Molly Germer. Tracks like “No Bitterness” and “Early Morning Waiting,” not to mention the contemplative single “Miracles,” sound really, actually happy. He works his way into a dark and noisy place on the record, but even songs like “Ain’t It Easy” and “Blessing” punch out a hopeful insistence.
Across the entire album, he leans into a charismatic Christian tilt, which I regularly associate with evangelism, spectacular megachurches, and my brother’s hand-raising girlfriend. This new spiritual discourse is most explicit in the record’s benediction, “After All,” where he sings, “After all people come and people go away, but God with me, he stayed.”
Giannascoli posits an informal, conversational relationship with God, a resigned optimism, and, as the title suggests, an inclusion of animals in all his prayers. It’s thematic content I’d usually disregard or treat with mild condescension. And when “God Save the Animals” dropped in September 2022, I mostly wrote it off.
Now as we’re emerging from the winter, picking our heads up from snow banks that never really formed, I’ve reconfigured my relationship to Alex G’s newly discovered faith. I won’t be devoting myself to his God of babies, drug-runners, and oceans, but I think Giannascoli has found an appropriate cosmological vehicle for the way we should be living in our 21st-century lifeworlds. The work is to rediscover an ecological faith. Ecological in the sense of our social relations to human and nonhuman agents: the ficus in my common room, the melanistic squirrels in the south of campus, rainstorms. The work is to pray, as Giannascoli suggests in “Miracles,” for the sinners and the children and the animals.
In the album’s promotional art, Alex G fixates on parrots, which makes sense. They speak, or at or at least mimic speech, so it feels easy to align them as persons. The work is to horizontalize, to reconnect, to love deeply.
I hesitate to call this deep ecology. Scholars, like Ramachandra Guha in 1989, criticized an early, American iteration of the concept, for its entanglement with imperialist projects as well as its orientalist invocation of belief systems like Taoism and Hinduism. Critics have also compared it to Indigenous, object-oriented ontologies. Early deep ecology prioritized a fascistic, imaginary notion of “untouched wilderness.” A new, deeper ecology needs to integrate wilderness and human settlement as social spaces, or conversely, as Timothy Morton suggests, “an ecology without Nature.”
Morton also writes that “The ecological thought insists that we’re deeply connected even when we say we’re not.” He says that we are suspended among all these floral, faunal, mineral persons faithfully, wholly. He speaks to the intractability of belief; we are done up, part and parcel.
We need huge, unending biospheric hope. Loving the speargrass. Pulling the rubber wolf mask off. Cutting the tops off strawberries. Tossing them to our chickens.
I’ve been thinking about how, if you channel deep enough into any discipline, you plumb a floor of spirituality. You have to cover the gaps with faith; it is the boson that holds things together, and the whole complex is so huge and complicated and beautiful that humility is forced onto you. The sublime bottom of the pit.
There might be a point when the waters recede, and I heat my house with clean hydrogen, and we finally discover a rational explanation for the depth of a field-like ecology, the associated mysteries. Until then, we are faithful.
Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger was another thing I ate up while wintering. McCarthy probes similar implications of extending beyond the human, most poignantly, I think, in Child of God, where he writes about “the slow green occlusion that the trees were spreading” and “the diminutive progress of all things in the valley.” That book is about a serial killer.
His late-stage career is decidedly more annihilative and presses deeper into quantum physics, ultimately to the depth of religiosity. Cormac manages to pry open some faith in The Passenger, writing, “I had heard this voice in my sleep and I could still hear the echo of it and it said: If something did not love you you would not be here. And I said okay.”
Things are here to get you. They are wolf and human and predate on you relentlessly. They occupy the speargrass. “Woah Lord, help me,” writes Frank Stanford. “Help me and my brother get through this tookover land.”
The teacher charged with sexual abuse was denied bail. In the detention center, he was isolated from other detainees. He was placed on suicide watch. The local magazines, and all my friends but not my mother stopped talking about the whole lycanthropic affair. When he tried for bail again, it was granted to him.
When we arrived on campus, we walked through neighborhoods, unused baseball diamonds to the lake that they dammed up and harvested ice from. It was quiet and muddy, and we forgot how early the sun set in February. Geese fanned across the sky, filled it. It was nice that they could come home so early. The moon still hung softly above us. When we returned to campus, the neighborhood was lit yellow with families in their homes.
In The Passenger, McCarthy writes further: “He thought that God’s goodness appeared in strange places. Don’t close your eyes.”