[NOTE: I wrote the original version of this essay two weeks after running the Boston Marathon in 2013. Although the piece has been slightly updated, the significance and content have changed very little since then, except for the recent trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Boston 2015 will be run this coming Monday, April 20. Peace in our time. TAT]
Responsibility comes to us in many forms. Often our obligations are planned and long term, such as child rearing. Other times duty is foisted upon us in a flash. In April 2013 I chose to run the Boston Marathon, and responsibility came to me in two echoing booms as I sprawled on early spring grass exhausted, depleted, and happy only two blocks from the finish where flying shrapnel killed three, maimed hundreds, and wounded the spirits of thousands. Anger, outrage, and sorrow always follow the tumultuous chaos of mass trauma. Then everyone trots out their favorite agenda, political or moral or religious or some combination of any of them.
Let’s be clear—I have an agenda, too, although my felt responsibility to the Boston bombings could be called many things: a worldview, a belief system, or perhaps even an hypothesis. Simply stated, I believe that for us to be whole people we need to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually connected to our place in as many ways and as deeply as possible—through the people and the landscape and all the other living things with whom we share our space.
This idea is neither new nor radical. The simplicity espoused by Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold’s challenge of environmental stewardship as moral responsibility, and the writings of a multitude of other environmental philosophers are reactions to human self-centered profligacy and subjugation of Nature. Their ideas resonate with us because today, and on all our other days, we sit, stand, and walk at the endpoint of a few million years of human evolution that has cemented into our chromosomes a desire for belonging, to be with other people functioning together within a place that meets our needs.
The current estrangement between people and the natural world likely began in earnest only in the last 10,000 years or so of civilized history when many of our ancestors parted ways with the tribal hunter-gatherer lifestyle that had sustained humanity and its predecessors for eons. In this new world constructed of concrete and crammed with people living as isolated individuals in competition with one another, we now have a recipe for despair, a dysfunctional state that can fuel the occasional sociopathic outburst in a few folks who exist at the frayed edges of the overstretched social fabric.
Stretched too far, yes. But not everything has been torn asunder. Ripped cloth can be mended. This is why I love the word connected: the double-click feel of it in my mouth, the sound of something locking in, buckling up, held firmly in place. The sound of safety. Disconnected, the antonym, is the word that haunted me after Boston 2013, stuck like an irritating grass seed in the folds of my gray matter. Severed, detached, disengaged, adrift, lost. Disconnected is one of the media adjectives used to describe Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the bomber killed by police days later.
Eugene author, high school teacher, and former troubled teen Peter Hoffmeister addressed the catastrophe of mass shootings (“On School Shooters–The Huffington Post Doesn’t Want You To Read This"), reminding us that shooters are often addicted to violent video games rather than fly-fishing or rock climbing, and that developing a connection with nature might be a palliative for dysfunctional, misfit kids. I couldn’t agree more, and would extend his thesis to say that a profound reconnection with our place might be a palliative for a dysfunctional, misfit society. Would a person who knows the evening rise of sulfur duns over darkening water or the candy smell of cottonwood leaves in spring or the deep red of a Spotted Towhee’s eye or the rising spiral call of a Swainson’s Thrush or the voluptuous pink nod of Calypso orchids or the lacy inscription of white on lavender wild iris petals or the feel of bean seeds pushed into warm May soil or the tribal connectedness of other people who also know these things ... would such a person also fill up a pressure cooker with black powder and ball bearings and nails and blow it up in a crowd of innocents? Not likely.
This worldview might seem a little quaint. You know what I mean: Tom's just a nature geek noodling on a topic of interest only to other nature geeks. But the implications of connectivity quickly deepen and widen when we ask how and why people should become participants in the wider world. This stitching together of torn cloth begins with education and experience. These lead to knowledge, knowledge becomes awareness, and awareness instills value. We can reenter the world of the living, even though the separation has been only in our minds. If we choose to follow the moral path laid out by luminaries such as Thoreau and Leopold, then we also have a moral obligation to speak on behalf of nature with the expectation that humanity realign its values with the natural order. Perhaps we could begin to think of this as progress.
As these words wind their way into cyberspace, the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has entered the sentencing phase. In 2014 I returned with my running tribe for another Boston Marathon. We had the remarkable experience of helping an entire city heal. Yet I still can’t face the headlines around this trial. The news makes me sad, the same sadness I felt in April 2013 when Tamerlan was killed and Dzhokhar arrested. There was no relief, no vengeance served, only the feeling that my chest might crack open and swallow me in sorrow.
What happens to Dzhokhar really isn’t the point. Regardless of his sentence he has no future. The deep and urgent issue is this: are we progressing as a society? Have we broadened our collective imagination to include meaningful connections among people, to the biosphere, to life? At times I wonder if the bombing would have happened, with people maimed and dead and Dzhokhar sitting in a cell at the crossroads of his life that can no longer be a life, if I had only been able to take he and his brother huckleberry picking on that broad blue day in late summer when there were no huckleberries and we started home then stopped to catch dark trout in the pools of a mountain brook tumbling through a dim forest of big fir older than old. Then I remember. Their time has passed.