A Journey to a Staples in Western, NY

Jesse Callahan Bryant
8 min readJan 31, 2022


There’s this period called the Axial Age which is basically just the millennium before we decided to start time (0 AD), when the Western world started happening, people from India to Italy started to moved to cities, became estranged from the land, and the experience of being a person became more about how to be with other people than how to be with other creatures. The Axial experience was all about learning to transition from ecological to social creatures, which it sounds like was really fucking hard for people. How? Well, religion!

So along with rapid urbanization (ecological to social) we get the conditions for the Judeo-Christian boom. God is no longer in the soil, metaphorically up in the sky, above Earth, not a part of it. Jesus is a guy from like 6BC-30AD and as Michael Bell points out in his City of the Good:

Take the four books of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus basically never discusses farming, neither its ecological challenges nor its social and economic rhythms…The Gospels proclaim that Jesus has a mission to change things that aren’t right. But that mission does not include a reformulation of agriculture and its social and ecological relations. He proposes no new agricultural festivals. He does not lament mistreatment of animals. He offers no explanation for the great agrarian questions of why the rains have not come and pests and diseases have. He does not critique Judeans for insufficient attention to stewardship of the land. He does not comment on the shmita, and he does not seem to regard Passover — a central event in his life, for the Last Supper was a Passover feast — as an agricultural holiday…Rather, the main way they consider ecological matters is to demonstrate that Jesus is very, very, powerful — that he is supernatural, above and able to control nature.

Jesus is an urban boy. The issue isn’t when to plant and when to harvest, but how to not be a money-crazed asshole. Money is conveniently transcendent in the same way god is imagined, and it allows humans to live lives wherein they only ever interact with other humans, entirely de-ecologized, or ecologized only through the market.

A bit before Jesus, Julius Caesar conquers all of Gaul, or the “Celtic” world, or Western Europe (except Brittany and Ireland) and brings urban problems to Europe. Later, in 300ish, when Constantine says all of Rome is Christian Western Europe becomes Christian too. It helps in urban affairs, and the entire continent is deforested. The Northern Europeans sorta realize that they’re really good at this technology thing, they just needed to be told that nature is there for the taking, as Lynn White classically points out:

Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s relation to nature which are almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.

Europeans do a ton of science and technology for centuries, and after they ruin their local environments build boats to go elsewhere. When they get to elsewhere’s they interpret even the local people as part of nature, exploitable, of no moral standing, with no rights. In a few centuries Europeans use technology and a dumb sense of nature and horrible moral logic to transform the Earth into the Globe resembling their god — a spiritual-economic paternalistic force that demands dependence and forces adherence by necessarily severing local ecological ties, just like an abusive father making sure a daughter is not finding joy in another man.

People submit, either out of survival or out of a judgement that, hey, this global thing might improve my life a bit. What does it matter I forget my gods, forget the names of the flora and fauna here?

Over time people stop asking where things come from originally, like, ecologically. It comes from the grocery store, or something. Even if people wanted to know, they can’t, because it doesn’t really matter. And so after another few centuries people just kinda stop caring. Ecosystems and people are connected globally. People in Turkmenistan rely on corn harvested by Trump voters in Iowa for their livelihood, but they can’t know that that’s true. The economy must obscure that fact, to save face. As Bill Cronon writes:

In an important sense, a distant world and its inhabitants gradually become part of another people’s ecosystem, so that it is increasingly difficult to know which ecosystem is interacting with which culture. This erasure of boundaries may itself be the most important issue of all.

People across the globe become reliant on people that they’ve never met, nor could even know the name of, for their life. The transcendent-paternalistic-economy must retain the power of distribution. The father’s proponents say it’s because the father is really good at what he does. He’s the best at making the big house as efficient as possible. And the story is sorta valid because they’re sorta right. He does a good job. He provides. But everyone knows he’s abusive and that he has favorites and that the whole favorites thing is a really big problem because out of the other side of his mouth he’s alway saying he doesn’t have favorites. It’s mostly the lying that makes the people who hate him hate him. And that he doesn’t let people live in the soil anymore.

The whole nobody knows who they depend on for their livelihood thing is a really big deal, but nobody even knows where to start. A French guy named Bruno that everyone hated forever but now everyone loves writes:

But what animate being is capable of describing with any precision the conditions on which it depends? Globalization-minus has made that operation virtually impossible — and indeed this was its main goal: to allow no more footholds for protests, by making it impossible to apprehend the system of production…To define a dwelling place, for a terrestrial, is to list what it needs for its subsistence, and, consequently, what it is ready to defend, with its own life if need be. This holds as true for a wolf as for a bacterium, for a business enterprise as for a forest, for a divinity as for a family…But here’s the problem: globalization-minus has made us lose sight, in the literal sense, of the causes and effects of our subjections. Hence the temptation to complain in general, and the impression of no longer having any leverage that could enable us to modify the situation.

He wants people to be able to clarify who they depend on for real again. Because we’re getting into this situation now where really closed minded people throughout the European colony-sphere are super into being hyper-nationalistic because they’re all confused and rightly so because all the people who sorta know what’s up aren’t being honest with them. The dishonesty on the elite side (and general ignorance) allows people to have really stupid perspectives in place like the United States, like simultaneously hating Chinese people and being entirely reliant on Chinese people for literally everything they buy — this perspective is only possible if the system of production is entirely obscured. Which is to say: this whole globalize and obscure allows for people to hate the same people they depend on for survival. This, I think, is the crux of our current moment — that economy and solidarity have become divergent.

Somewhere in a Staples in Western, NY a Potawatomi woman named Robin knows that imagining a different world where economy and ecology and and geography and meaning are all tangled again is dangerous for someone like her, a survivor of a genocide meant to make her people depend on the father, the son, and the holy ghost, whether in their economic or spiritual dimensions. But she still dreams:

I wander next to the pen aisle, or as they call it, “writing instruments.” The choices here are even more numerous and I have no idea at all where they came from, except some petrochemical synthesis. How can I bring honor to this purchase, use my dollars as the currency of honor when the lives behind the product are invisible? I stand there so long that an “associate” comes to ask if I’m looking for anything in particular. I guess I look like a shoplifter planning a heist of “writing instruments” with my little red basket. I’d like to ask him, “Where did these things come from? What are they made of and which one was made with a technology that inflicts minimal damage to the earth? Can I buy pens with the same mentality with which a person digs wild leeks?” But I suspect he would call security on the little earpiece attached to his jaunty store cap, so I just choose my favorite, for the feel of the nib against the paper and the purple and green ink. At the checkout I engage in reciprocity, tendering my credit card in return for writing supplies. Both the clerk and I say thank you, but not to the trees.

I’m trying hard to make this work, but what I feel in the woods, the pulsing animacy, is simply not here. I realize why the tenets of reciprocity don’t work here, why this glittering labyrinth seems to make a mockery of the Honorable Harvest. It’s so obvious, but I didn’t see it, so I was intent on searching for the lives behind the products. I couldn’t find them because the lives aren’t here. Everything for sale here is dead.

Life makes the job of the patriarch difficult, so things must be dead — otherwise life will do what it does: revolt, explode, multiply, undermine, be ultimately unmanageable, desire ecology, be nostalgic, a self-starter, turn air and sun into sugar. The journey away from the Earth and toward the Globe started a while ago, but it seems like its sorta run its course.

The question now, to basically summarize an entire book by Bruno Latour, is where do we land? For me, this is the question of how do we return to the Earth, re-ecologize, without forgetting the good stuff, like human rights and global solidarity? How do not return just to blood and soil, the classic eco-racial fusion of ethnos and ecos typified by the Nazis, where people and land are one and philosophically separate from other people? How do we become “place-based” while retaining a salient global consciousness and identity necessary to address global problems?



Jesse Callahan Bryant

Jesse is a Ph.D. student at the Yale School of the Environment, creator of the Yonder Lies podcast, and instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School.