Tom Richards reviews Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World by Lisa Wells. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
I mean, for one thing, it was 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, Oregon, this summer. That was nine degrees hotter than the previous all-time record high of 107 in 1981 and 1942. Unless you count the day before it reached 116, when it got up to 112.
Elsewhere on July 9, 2021, it reached a temperature never previously recorded on earth when the thermometer hit 130 in Death Valley, California. And fires ripped through our western landscape again this summer. It seems that each year now we are setting new peak acreage burns. And yet, a few months earlier in Texas, a 6.47-inch diameter hailstone fell during a severe thunderstorm event. The golf ball metaphor is long gone now. Mark my word, basketball-sized hail will fall sometime in the near future. So, yeah, something’s wrong.
What can we do about it? We are, after all, only human. Maybe we need some heroes.
“All heroes disappoint eventually. All are proven hypocrites. And yet … when evidence of any of the usual human defects (are) located in an admired leader, the backlash can be intense.”
Lisa Wells thinks we’re asking too much of our heroes.
“In other words, it’s not enough (for our heroes) to articulate the problem; (they) must also solve it, then lead people by the hand through (their) solution, while (their followers) pick it apart, flaw by flaw.”
After you read her book, Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World, Lisa Wells may just be one of your new heroes. She’s smart, caring, and insightful … and she was also a high school dropout. Turns out, she is human. Her book is filled with human heroes. Her heroes are flawed like any of us, but they are not paralyzed by their flaws, or by fear, often they are motivated by them. Wells, who now holds a master’s degree from America’s preeminent writers’ college, Iowa, has written a crafty book that will pull you in.
Her book is like one of those great conversations you’ve had with a stranger at a party. The kind that begins on a couch in the corner of an odd apartment. You end up seated next to a stranger. They are definitely an odd character, but when they start speaking, their story is mesmerizing. Detail after detail brings you further and further in. You’re hooked. From across the room, your friend sees this and comes over to “save you” as you’ve previously agreed. But without saying a word, you shake your head “no” and continue to listen. You’ve been waiting years for a conversation like this. This quirky stranger is a genius, and they’ve actually got some answers. You’ve got questions, too. And at the end of the night when you say goodbye, you realize this odd person, this quirky genius, is the only person you’ve talked to all night.
The next day, you find yourself asking more questions about the topic. You want to continue the conversation, but the stranger’s not there. And then you think, What was their name again? Did I get their contact information? Are we friends? You’ve got nothing! And so, you do the next best thing and look up the sources you remember the stranger citing.
That’s what I’ve done now that I’ve finished Well’s book. I checked out two books by the eminent psychologist Carl R. Rogers. I found a film by Wim Wenders called Salt of the Earth, about photographer Sebastião Salgado. I watched a documentary about John Liu on ecological restorations. I’ve looked up information on Camas roots, and I’ve begun a little research on rewilding. A good book gets you thinking, and a better book gets you off the couch entirely.
A good book gets you thinking, and a better book gets you off the couch entirely.
Wells’ essayish-style is very rewarding, as is her knowledge and research. She begins with her life and reveals her own flaws, and then she proceeds to tell you tale after tale filled with odd, fascinating, relentless, resilient, and obsessed persons; for example, a couple who seem like they may have come right out of some noir fiction—but they’re real. And so are the problems they’re addressing. Each of them comes at these problems from their own unique style. But what is consistent among her protagonists is their verisimilitude. They are honest about the problem, and earnest about their solutions.
Oh yeah, the problem? The book’s central question and concern is: The world is burning! How, then, shall we live?
Wells begins with a transgender itinerant preacher who tends edible bulbs on the prairies and plateaus across the West; first crossing the south and southwest in a horse-drawn wagon and then later by horse or truck. She is seemingly fearless and relentless in her quest. When we first find Finisia Medrano, she is near a very small town in eastern Oregon called Sparta. She suffers no fools and has followed her dream from childhood to old age. As a child, she promised herself to go away from what she saw as the destruction of the earth. She felt it was her obligation to God and the truth. Her truth was plain to her; to tend and keep the garden of God’s original planting.
There is a lot of talk about this proverbial garden and of Paradise in Believers, but what most of her protagonists strive to do is take the land back to a previous state. They want to see if it’s possible to repair man’s damage and for us to live on this planet as active partners and shepherds. Lisa herself states that she believes, “… human beings are built to be beneficial contributors to the earth, just like bees …” Personally, I don’t see Donald Trump or Elon Musk as part of my particular colony, but I like her, at times, optimistic take. I mean, of the choices we have, I think it may be best if we strive for the one she has laid out. The idea of obsessive and reiterative problem-solving mixed with a little optimism.
There are a dozen or so characters/protagonists in Believers, and the book follows them one by one and tells their—often seemingly unrelated—stories. But what they have in common is their movement forward towards solutions, while seemingly ignoring antipathy. These types of individuals (working alone or in consort) are perhaps our last hope, and there are several stories, especially towards the end of the book (yes, there is a payoff of sorts), that gave me real hope. These iconoclasts are the heroes/protagonists of the book, but one of the most hopeful stories is in the final chapter of the book where it discusses the complete rehabilitation of a large swath of Central China called the Loess Plateau. The reason I find this story so compelling is that it got the buy-in from the Chinese communist government. Of course, there were a couple of other individual heroes (including John Liu) who helped to figured out a solution for the Chinese problem and helped to take these solutions to other areas around the world.
Also on The Big Smoke
- The Sound of Metal and the Failure of a Narrative Wrapped in a Failure of Sound
- The GOP’s Hypocrisy on Socialism (or The Dance of the Neanderthal Saucer Men)
- The Present Moment Is a Gift to Unwrap and Embrace
The work, our work, this work, which needs to be done is only just beginning, and it is little more right now than a few drops of answers in a cistern we need to fill. Believers has given me a little hope, but not Pollyanna-type hope. Hope based on actual people, affecting actual problems with creative and sustainable ideas. The people I’ve met in this book are relentless. Hopefully, their ideas and enthusiasm become contagious and that you and I become foot soldiers in this battle as well.
As I mentioned, the symbol of Paradise is used throughout the book and it becomes obvious what Wells is talking about, even though each of her characters may have a different idea of what this Paradise will look like. We know what we’re up against, you and I, and Wells is no fool either. She knows, as she writes towards the end of the book that, “For some, paradise is a coke-fueled night of fellatio on the Vegas strip.” She also knows the difference between migration and colonization. She writes, “colonizers seek to control, exploit, and suppress life; migrators seek to cooperate and coexist.” Which is an important lesson on many levels.
In some of the most compelling writing in the book, Wells talks about how sometimes invasive species (migrators) can be quite helpful. She provides some engaging examples: she cites Tao Orion, an expert on permaculture, who gives an example of groves of Tree-of-Heaven trees being used in defunct and abandoned coal mines as a form of bioremediation. These trees, more often than not seen as pests, work in this situation to extract poisons such as mercury and Sulphur dioxide from the polluted soils.
The book rewards on many levels. There is a section where she writes about the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado and talks about the idea of representation being false; as well as another time when she is talking about the petty arguments amongst anarchists’ communities where she cites Freud’s idea of “The narcissism of minor differences,” her insights and style seem pleasingly Sontag-like.
There is much here for a weary leftist soul, but if you do not find all the answers in her pages, it may perhaps be best to be your own hero, and leave Lisa Wells and the others who are struggling forward on their own journeys.
Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World by Lisa Wells is now available everywhere books and e-Books are sold, and can be purchased directly from the publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux.