In memoriam Klaus Arnsperger: “Ashes to ashes,” or a call for renewing our native wisdom

Hello everyone. It’s been quite a while again (almost three months this time) since I last posted something. Life has been intruding, so to speak. I won’t go into all details. Some of them are pretty mundane, others less so.

One event stands out for me though, strangely or not so strangely related to this blog’s theme through the passageways of metaphysical lucidity. My father Klaus Arnsperger died, aged 87, on January 13th in a hospital in Zurich. My mother, my sister and I held his hands and stroked his chest up until his very last breath.

It was existential circularity at its starkest: The man and the woman who gave me birth, both attending (in very different ways) to his being pulled back into Mother Nature’s womb — or so it felt. It was very hard and very moving and very cosmic. It was a totally normal story, one that occurs in one version or another every millisecond on our planet. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: a life’s circle well lived, filled with human foibles and unsung, everyday heroism.

My father was an unassuming and discrete man, almost to the point of being withdrawn sometimes. He cultivated an inner garden we had scant access to. In his later years he opened up more, the occasional wetness in the eyes as he watched one of his grandchildren play betraying deeper currents, but it was never anything heart- or earth-shattering. Extroversion was simply not his thing. He loved to walk alone in the local wooded landscapes of upper Wollishofen, more so than along the stunning lakeshore that unfolds just a few hundred yards from my parents’ apartment. One of my rare regrets is not to have accompanied him more often on his morning journeys, but on the few occasions I did, I got a clear glimpse of what he relished in them: the clear, quiet transparency of the forest air; the slow, lazy course of the river Sihl which comes from the canton Schwyz and flows away into the river Limmat; and the meditative pace he could maintain for two, three or even four hours at a time while letting is sharp mind freely roam its well-tended, wide-ranging, book-lined inner landscapes.

The river Sihl

None of this is alien to the deeper currents of wisdom I identify in the perma-circular mindset. My father’s last wish was that his ashes be dispersed in the Sihl, so that through the Limmat, the Aare and eventually the Rhine, they will reach the North Sea. A few of us will gather mid-May to fulfill this wish, illustrating in a striking manner how intensely “native to this land” my father was. He felt a stranger to Zurich in some ways, perceiving both the city and its inhabitants as being rather cool and distant. But he was deeply enthralled by the ever-changing landscape and by the ever-returning cycles of nature — the woods, the meadows, the river, the surrounding hills. He also liked the quiet streets (a bit too quiet at times…), the beautiful old remnants of the original rural village down Haumesserstrasse (with their thick walls and wooden panneling), and the dignified old cemetery though which he walked frequently. My father always felt a peacefulness in cemeteries — nothing morbid at all, just a deep affection for human signs left over from days gone by, for the tales and monuments of history, for the past that gets recycled into the present and, in this way, nourishes the future. He didn’t want his own circle to close in a cemetery, though; as a disciple of Schopenhauer and of the ancient Stoics, he had a leaning towards a more cosmic dissolution: no gravestone, no landmark, no name etched in stone to memorize and memorialize — just a full return of “his” material body to the earth, in the form of ashes that will travel away into the myriad rivulets of Nature’s massive network of life-and-death watersheds.

Flow and circularity were so crucial in my father’s inner life that it suddenly strikes me, writing these words, that he was a true native to the places in which he lived, all the while maintaining a distance that kept him from being fully entangled in impermanent matter and psyche as well as from believing in a permanent soul — to the point, as he once confided in me, of knowing himself to be rather too detached from his own emotions and from his fellow humans. He had a deep affection for people but often had trouble displaying it, and he seemed more openly drawn to cities and landscapes. He hadn’t gotten his wisdom down to a tee, but he had a natural talent for “nativeness.” He wasn’t an environmentalist in any sense, but he espoused the environments given to him and delved into them with intense interest and sometimes delight.

More than twenty years ago, farmer and agrarian philosopher Wes Jackson published a book entitled Becoming Native to this Place (University Press of Kentucky, 1994), in which he urged Americans to recover the more ancient wisdom of “nativeness” in order to escape from the thrall of consumerism, materialism, and superficiality. My father spent six years as a foreign correspondent for the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in Washington, D.C. from 1979 to 1985, during the Reagan era. That’s the reason I grew up in the United States as a teenager. I didn’t get my deep love for the USA from him — he pretty much hated the whole thing, despairing at what he felt was the American cult of vanity and mere surfaces. He didn’t have enough time, or perhaps lacked the desire, to engage with American thinkers such as Wes Jackson and many others, who harbored critiques similar to his about their own country. He didn’t quite realize, it seems, how diverse American thought about America really is, and just how many wonderful alternative thinkers and activists there are in the USA. In the age of Trump — on which my father thankfully never had to report firsthand (he would have burst from exasperation), and of which we spoke briefly through his oxygen mask on the evening before he passed away — the “America First” slogan sounds merely like a clarion call to white males to grab the last spoils of a colonial project that is also in its death throes, while in the process trampling underfoot the last remnants of genuine nativeness. For at least the coming four years, loudmouthed landgrab-mongering and cynical resource extractivity (on sacred and other lands) are going to rule the day in the United States more than almost ever before.

Fragile inner gardens such as my father’s are getting trampled by the way in which the Western, so-called developed world is mishandling nature and manhandling native cultures. No culture is ideal, just like no man’s inner cosmos is perfect. There are human weaknesses everywhere. Traditional cultures can display terrible features. No Native American tribe or nation was ever a choir of angels. And yet, and yet — what we “moderns” can learn from them in terms of a much-needed, perma-circular mindset is (pun intended) huge and tremendous. While recently finishing a paper about the bioregional movement in postwar North American culture, it became clear to me just how much we are going to need to rely on a re-actualization of native wisdom about nature, about settlement, about landscape and resource management, about solidarity and cultural integrity, about the importance of ritual and cosmic belonging, and so on.

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An adobe pueblo in Taos, New Mexico, dating back to the 13th century

I have no intention of idealizing anything. However, we are talking here about cultures that have virtually vanished not because of their own intrinsic unsustainability (as ours might well, soon), but because of the brutality of colonizers driven by unsustainable needs, fears and fantasies. These ancient cultures can’t be judged by the conventional evolutionary, historical ideology according to which they could have survived but simply didn’t, so that just proves their unfitness. There is absolutely no “just so” explanation for the marginalization and defilement of native wisdom and traditional cultures.

Of course there is no reason, either, why the urgent need for perma-circularity should impel us to regress to ancient superstitions and patriarchal discriminations; I get that. We need to overcome our modern industrialism’s own deep superstitions and fear-filled cosmologies — which often parade as science-based technological progress and as a frightened faith in the “necessity” of permanent growth — in order to reshape a culture of circularity and permanence that espouses both modernity and nativeness. I know that sounds grand and almost corny, but I am deeply convinced that, running through many of 19th- and 20th-century alternative movements, and especially the countercultural streams of the 1960s and 70s, is the unrelenting quest for a livable form of Native Modernity. Our production-, consumption- and growth-driven culture is unwise but rejects fatalism and drives onward always (to the point of being ecologically suicidal); traditional native cultures are often fatalistic and static but they tend to be incredibly wise, ecologically and spiritually if not socially. Perma-circularity is yet another stab at extracting the best from both strands. Our survival hangs on our success in this endeavor.

There is a deep thread in my mind and heart connecting the quest for Native Modernity to my father’s inner garden and to his quiet, almost invisible passage through the world. I have no idea whether he would be in sympathy with my project. I never really talked about it with him. But on the day in May — rain or shine — when we scatter his ashes on the bank of the river Sihl in Wollishofen, I will be feeling deeply connected to all the native river- or lakeside, desert or rainforest, mountain or valley dwellers who live the unassuming dignity of a perma-circular, “ashes to ashes” ethic.

“Cradle to cradle” is a beautiful metaphysical expression but it has recently been co-opted and repurposed by the eco-modernist proponents of a circular growth economy. So let’s settle for the somewhat more somber, but also more gritty and real, “ashes to ashes.” We need make no apologies for connecting our view of a livable future to the true cycles of life and death in nature — that, at least, is something I’m pretty sure my father would have wholeheartedly agreed with.


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