It all begins, as so many things do in Western storytelling, at the beginning. Where man was created in God’s likeness, to rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, and put into the Garden Eden, to work and take care of it, and where, subsequently, he was cast out, as a consequence of his own sinfulness and inability to resist the temptation of knowledge. For centuries, even millennia, the narrative that humanity was cast out of our original home has prevailed, and it has fundamentally shaped the way in which we view our surroundings, Planet Earth, and the way in which we inhabit time. We see ourselves as cast out, locked out from the Garden, and the vale of tears has become our new, reluctant home, one that we need to endure before we can once again re-enter a better place, paradise. In Christian mythology, time is linear, and at the end of our story, something better is waiting for us.
So much for the beginning. With the arrival of the industrial revolution, and that which is widely called “modernity”, something happened. God was declared dead and something fundamental shifted in Western consciousness. “On or about December 1910, human character changed”, Virginia Woolf wrote famously in Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown. Similarly, in Aldous Huxley’s dystopia Brave New World, years are no longer counted ‘Anno Domini’, but instead ‘After Ford’ – the calendar of the technocratic society begins in the year 1908, when Ford’s first Model T rolls off its assembly line.
With the Western movement towards modernity, “Make it new” became the maxim, not only for artistic or literary movements, but for society itself. God had died, but our time continued to be linear. We were still not at home, but the reason for it was no longer that we had been cast out of paradise, but that the home had simply become too old for us new, modern humans, and instead of hoping for a better place after death, we began to hope for a better place after time. In an increasingly secular world, the hope for a paradise of God was diminishing, replaced by a hope for a paradise of man. Make it new, make it better. Make it manmade, for God is dead, but we were created in his image, to rule over the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea.
And thus, tradition became a dirty word, one that was associated with those who refused to go along with the progress of creating a new and better world; a word associated with those who were stuck in a certain kind of primitivism – elders, indigenous peoples, people, who were mistrustful of the myth of the technocratic inventor genius, of the new Prometheus. Who cares about roots, when it is all about growing new, exciting blossoms?
But here is the problem: progress is not actually a thing. We are now unlearning the supremacy of calling some societies more or less developed, because if you were born right now, at this moment, whether in New York City or in rural Kenya, you were born at the same moment in time. Societies have only developed in different ways. And in the light of various, rapidly accelerating crises, we have started to realise that what we in the West call progress, might not actually be so beneficial at all.
Because if a tree’s crown were to grow bigger and bigger and bigger, and there is no more energy spent on maintaining the roots, eventually, it’s stem would be unable to hold and the tree would fall. For obvious reasons, no tree would ever behave so foolishly. Humanity on the other hand has come to a point, where, like a massive game of jenga, we have pulled out material that has sustained us and used it to build our tower higher, while eating up the foundations. Now we have to reconsider how to restabilise ourselves..
Now, what has been said previously could easily stem out of the feather of a conservative. Something along the lines of conserving established values, honouring age-old traditions, usually focusing on traditions which are connected to exclusionary narratives. “We always did it like this, so why change?” and “everything was better in the olden days” are catchphrases of conservatism, that are more frequently than not directed against those who advocate for social justice and equal rights. This text however, is by no means a plea to embrace politically conservative values, values that endanger the human rights of women, ethnic minority groups, and members of the LGBT+ community. Instead, I am advocating to strengthen the roots of those movements that are fighting for social justice. To reexamine what gave minority groups strength in the past, to learn from the wisdom of our elders. Of course not everything was better in the olden days, but being young and being new is no guarantee for being better either. Because there are not only straight, old, white men, but there are also old, lesbian, black women out there; there are people out there who have seen a lot and fought a lot, and experienced a lot. People whose experiences could fill a library, and people whose experiences and wisdom will help us to confront many of the seemingly insurmountable challenges that we are facing today.
Instead of orienting ourselves according to a linear time model, which suggests that everything gets better the more time has passed and the newer things are, we need to learn from those who have lived for a long time, and seen a lot of things. We don’t need to copy them, but we can adapt their knowledge to our own historical moment.
I began this blog post with the story of the genesis, arguably one of the most famous stories in the world, and one that has shaped societies for centuries to come. It is the perfect example of how much power a single story can have. But there are other stories woven into this text, other writers, people whose thoughts we refer back to, decades or centuries after their death. These were people who had something to say, and people whose truths needed to be heard. There are so many people who are part of the roots which continue to nourish us – some we know about, many we don’t. To explore their lives, their relationships to us and the foundations which they have laid can give us strength for battles to come. Epoch Press prides itself in publishing truth in ink, texts that are not fictional, but nevertheless stories, stories that are true enough to unveil other truths, and we are looking forward to reading new stories about old roots that can help us to deal with the challenges we are facing today.