Climbing Bunker Hill

The Bunker HIll Monument, on Bunker Hill in Charlestown (Boston)

The Bunker Hill Monument, on Bunker Hill in Charlestown (Boston)

There is some metaphorical irony to returning to this blog space on the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Revolutionary War occupies a large place in my family history, with ancestors who were United Empire Loyalists who supported the British and lost everything – only to find it again in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Bunker Hill was a battle “we” won – though the historian in me knows that many more such victories and the British army would have had no prayer of ever winning the war.

But I was in Boston, briefly, and had time for a visit – so went to see USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” to take pictures and admire the shrewdest piece of naval technology of the eighteenth century. It was built to outgun what it couldn’t outrun, by people who intended to win and not acquiesce. As I counted the 32-pounder carronades on the top deck and the thick oak planking, I imagined the incredulity of the British and others who discovered what asymmetric war at sea really meant.

From the dock, I could see the Bunker Hill Monument, and so I decided to walk up to it – and discovering I could also climb the stairs inside the monument, asked for my free pass to do so. I brushed off the surprise of the commissionaire issuing tickets, and set out to climb what was diffidently advertised as 294 stairs to the top.

Four weeks to the day, I had woken up in my own bed for the first time in a month, having spent weeks lying about in hospital admiring the benefits of the Canadian health care system while subsisting on a steady diet of antibiotics and jello. So it was a monumental climb from that perspective as well.

Two days later, on the anniversary of the battle, I feel like my legs are now made of jello – and have gotten small sympathy from colleagues or family for my folly.

But there was more to the symbolism than the climb.

I was in Boston after attending a conference on sustainable consumption and production at Clark University in nearby Worcester. We considered the problems of sustainability from a variety of perspectives and had compiled a considerable list of insurmountable obstacles by the time we were finished.

Combat metaphors were hard to avoid, as conflict seemed inevitable between those intent on continuing toward planetary destruction out of their own self absorption and blind greed, and good-willed people of like mind earnestly searching for some better alternative path into a sustainable future.

Naturally, “they” were creating the problem and “we” were attempting the solution. However much we intellectually can identify our own lifestyles as contributing to the problem, emotionally it is far more difficult to realize “we have met the enemy and s/he is us.”

My own presentation compounded the ironies for myself. Still recuperating, I had travelled from Winnipeg to Worcester, Massachusetts (some 2900 kilometers by road) to present a paper called “Live Close to Home: Proximity as a Characteristic of a Sustainable Society,” to people from all over Europe and North America.

It is the inherent problem of a sustainable lifestyle that even those working toward a less consumptive society (pun intended) are inescapably entwined within the web of unsustainable activities. We could have all stayed home and saved the carbon costs, but then we would have missed what we learned from talking to each other.

My “network” has expanded as a result of the conference, but more than the e-mail addresses and invitations to get Linked-In, the real value lay in conversations and sharing ideas with people whose paths I would never otherwise have crossed. Where these relationships – not connections! – will lead, I have no idea. We may only correspond through the electronic aether from this point onward, but any future correspondence is anchored in time we spent together.

In terms of what is said elsewhere in this blog and in Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World, it is all a matter of Presence. That Presence, even only a few minutes spent together, was worth the effort, the risk, the carbon cost of the trip.

In a culture where we are encouraged to be connected but not related, to see and hear but not to touch or smell, the more we encounter the physical Presence of other people, the more sustainability becomes palpable. Shared ideas, feelings, emotions, even nothing more than the physical contact of a handshake and a shared glance of introduction, gives solidity to what otherwise would be immaterial and evanescent as a result.

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