You know what we are? We're dirt that gets up and walks around. Dirt, water, sunlight and a speck of information: that is the entire recipe for the human pie. Dirt we were, dirt we will be, and dirt we are now. I'm not placing any negative value on dirt here: I like the stuff fine. I never ate dirt as a kid, but I've had girlfriends who did, and they turned out okay. Dirt: ask for it by name.
I have come to think that the thin layer of cells —formerly dirt—that separates us from all the other fine dirt in the world does not actually do that at all, that we are wholly of a part. Even as we cruise along in our tinted-windshield solitude, we might be more connected than we know. Maybe we are intended to be the eyes and other sense organs of the world. An orange can't taste itself, but we can (even as we bulldozed one of the last orange groves in Orange County two weeks ago). Saddleback can't much appreciate itself, but we can (on the rare days it isn't obscured by airborne glup).
A rose can't smell itself, but if humanity is the nose of the world, it is a damn big one. We and our works have festered out of proportion to the rest of nature, so that the world is threatening to become all nose with nothing left to smell.
We have a specific term for uncontrolled growth when it occurs in our bodies. We call it cancer.
Cancer cells are also just dirt, water and sunlight—and a little bit of misinformation. The difference is that, unlike other cells, they don't serve a useful function relative to the rest of the organism. They don't play nicely with the other cells; they only replicate and spread until the other cells can't live anymore and there is much crying and gnashing of teeth down in celldom. Once the organism is dead, the cancer dies, too, so even the little cancer cells don't get to hoist their flag for long.
There is scant difference between what takes place on the microscopic level and what we're doing on this sweet planet and specific county of ours. We are like free radicals, killing the world by doing the very things that, science is finding, give us cancer ourselves. Cancer in, cancer out.
I've read that the body—just as it does when you're building muscle—senses cancer cells only as growth and forms new blood vessels to feed the tumors. While biking around Upper Newport Bay recently, I saw that 73 toll road snaking into the hills like our own little Grapevine and said to myself, "Well, son of a bitch if that isn't what I was just reading about." If there's a patch of nature left anywhere, developers build on it and then get us to feed it with roads and sundry infrastructure.
I'm glad to have a roof over my head and the odd jolt of electricity now and then, but we've lost all sense of proportion. There is a difference between a ramshackle Date Shack alongside a rustic stretch of coastline and a seamless resort for the rich obliterating the coast. There used to be some small sense of balance here, but no more. In the past five years, the once semi-sacrosanct Back Bay, for example, has been cloaked in new housing tracts and crowned with an ever-gleaming Mercedes-Benz dealership. To enjoy this newly perfected vision, the county has destroyed several remaining acres of bay land building a "nature center," complete with a concrete parking structure and newly fenced walks where critters once nested.
Surf-guitar legend Dick Dale and his fellow boarders used to count on the ocean water to cleanse and heal cuts and abrasions. The last time he tried that, he got an infection that lasted for months, thanks to the endless human waste we now dump there.
The sour Kraut philosopher Goethe said, "Life is the disease of matter." I don't know about the otters and geraniums, but we sure fit the bill.
Our population explosion is insanely uncontrolled growth. There are more people alive on the planet right now than in the entirety of our past, and some of us will live long enough to see it double again. And like a malignant tumor in the body, we metastasize, dragging everything else along with us: poisoning rivers, burning out forests, obliterating species, making sweaters for dachshunds. Where does it fucking end?
One of the signs of undetected cancer is unexplained fevers. That could put a new spin on global warming, yes?
We live in a society that measures success only by growth. What's a business that survives and sustains a community for generations compared to one that zooms up the Dow, gobbling up everything in its path? Even local government is intent on empire-building. Consider Garden Grove, which destroyed a community in its effort to build a big entertainment and shopping complex, and then abandoned that plan only because every neighboring city was building similar complexes, all of which favor corporate monoculture over local business. Consider the Brea Olinda School District, which, as reported by Nick Schou in the Jan. 7 Weekly, can't even build a goddamn high school without tying it to a shopping-center development scheme.
Many things in nature are self-governing. Hawaiian koa wood is now being raised on plantations (most of the forests were slashed and burned years ago to make grazing land for cattle), and after a decade or so, growers wondered why they only had rows of stumpy, sickly trees. Because more is always mo' bettah for humans, they planted the trees close together, only to learn that, like some other plant species, the koa tree's roots contain natural toxins that inhibit other trees—even other koas—from growing too close.
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Maybe our toxin is our own insatiability. We're inventing our own demise. Consider organochlorines. According to Texas populist Jim Hightower's marvelous muckraking book There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos (HarperCollins, 1997), the 50 years in which chemical companies have dumped millions of tons of organochlorines into our biosphere has coincided with a 60 percent increase in breast cancers, a trifold increase in testicular cancer, and a 50 percent drop in the average man's sperm count. So maybe we won't double in population.
(Interestingly, on the breast cancer front, Hightower reports that the Zeneca Group chemical company makes billions as a leading producer of organochlorines alleged to cause breast cancer, while also funding the Breast Cancer Awareness Month organization, which curiously ignores studies implicating organochlorines, while Zeneca also makes nearly half a billion dollars per year marketing a marginally effective drug to treat the breast cancers they may be causing. Are they covering all the bases or what? Another side note: much of the organochlorine pollution is caused by paper mills. I hope you're as pleased as I am to know that the Weekly is printed on chlorine-free paper.)
The problem with all known cancer treatments is that they also take a toll on healthy cells. Whatever chemicals we whack ourselves out with—if all else fails, we've still got megatons of radiation treatment to fall back on —are also going to be-whack other critters great and small. Bad dirt!
Cancer is not a term I bandy about as some abstract notion. I've had it and don't recommend it. Friends have had cancer. My mom has. A year ago, I watched my dad die of it. I think we could find better things to emulate.