Ben has been on a weird but compelling futurist kick lately. Basically this means that in the car or in evenings we listen to podcasts about the possibility of uploading your consciousness to the Internet, or the most currently hostile environments on Earth, or what a world with 10 billion humans would look like. By turns apocalyptic or starry-eyed techno-optimistic, the types of people we have been listening to make you feel very, very small and unimportant in the vast universe, while at the same time convinced that you are using way more resources than the tiny machine of your body could ever be entitled to. Dinner table conversation has been interesting, mostly because I can’t quite wrap my head around uploading one’s consciousness.
It’s tomato season. I grow tomatoes because I am selfish. I don’t relate to a lot of writing about gardens because the truth is, I grow things I like because I can’t get them otherwise and because I am hungry. I think getting in touch with how food is produced and getting dirt under your fingernails is all well and good, but I know legitimate farmers who do a much better job than me, in terms of actual production. But let’s say you want a particular kind of brownish-purple tomato that tastes like smoke and parmigiano and apples, and that you want to be able to eat slabs of them on bread with mayo and red onion and possibly a little hot sauce every day for a month. For this, you must grow your own. I am the strange tomato woman in the office, who pulls out a heavy water balloon of a Black Brandywine or a few Orange Bananas, a serrated knife, and a loaf of bread onto her desk come lunchtime.
A lot of the podcasts we’ve been listening to mention a proposed name for our current geologic era: the Anthropocene. If you haven’t heard the term, the Anthropocene epoch is characterized by humans and their impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. Some scientists think that the Anthropocene began during the Industrial Revolution, about the time that our carbon outputs ticked upward sharply, but there are some that posit that it began earlier, when agriculture began. To me this makes sense, calling to mind images of humans scratching away at our planet’s crust with digging implements, literally changing the landscape to suit.
Leah, who is a reader and, in the weird world of the Internet, I suppose a friend of sorts, sent me a nice email recently related to a post I wrote about canning tomatoes last summer. “Life in the Anthropocene!” she wrote at one point.
I thought this was clever and timely. It has become my favorite phrase. It’s strangely comforting to be reminded, amidst all the handwringing over, well, everything nowadays, that we have built the house we live in: that most everyday worries are entirely wrought by humans in our efforts to landscape our surroundings to benefit us. It doesn’t really make them escapable, or really even less of a worry, but at least I can identify where it came from. Funny how pointing the finger is so satisfying, even if it’s towards, well, me.
I invoke the phrase for everything. Did you hear 2015 is on track to be the hottest year on record? Life in the Anthropocene! Have you read that book The Sixth Extinction? Life in the Anthropocene, seriously.
Having a house that we are currently fixer-upper-ing is like living out the effects of humans on the planet in miniature. We leave our fingerprints on everything, creating lots of trash and letting the chickens scratch away all the vegetation in pockets of the property. I’m now at the point where I totally abuse the phrase, using it as a proxy for anything that’s frustrating or anxiety-inducing even though it’s my own fault. The kitchen, which we are in the middle of renovating, has no countertops and half of a floor and no appliances. (A little stressful! Life in the Anthropocene!) I was supposed to be in Kabul again for work but had to cancel last minute because of crazy-ass shit going on there. (A little scary! Life in the Anthropocene?) I had to do poultry surgery for the first time last week, Amazon Prime-ing scalpels and gauze and Betadine to my front door. Life in the Anthropocene! Sort of.
Maybe it’s a bit (okay, a lot) of a stretch to chalk the late summer, wistful feeling in my belly up to an awareness of our geologic age, but being reminded of your smallness is akin to that feeling you get when you look at the stars. Smacked in the face with expansiveness, we’re momentarily dazzled, maybe even scared. But when we come back down we’re still so here, with silly immediate needs, wants, hungers. I see myself more clearly: a little Homo sapiens sapiens scurrying around trying to shape her planet to suit herself, rooting around in the earth with tools, adding things to the soil, planting seeds, and fighting off rabbits and deer and fat caterpillars, all to be able to slice into a certain kind of pretty, bruise-colored tomato.