When I was 13 years old, I went to a British boarding school for boys — sort of like prep school in the U.S., but more gruesome.
I signed up for the school play, a heavy-duty spiritual-quest-type drama called Brand by the 19th-Century Norwegian Henrik Ibsen. And since my voice hadn’t broken yet, I got to play the part of Brand’s fiancé, Agnes.
Late in the play, the ghost of the now-dead Agnes appears to Brand on a rocky mountain crag, but as he goes running to her, she raises her arms and calls out to him, “Stop! A gulf lies between us.”
The first challenge was that I just couldn’t get it to come out right, and our rather exasperated drama teacher/producer kept muttering angrily that it sounded like, “A gull flies between us.”
Worse, however, was on opening night, when the “rocky crag” I was standing on – a pile of boxes with a black cloth draped over them – toppled over as I raised my arms. I never even got to say “A gulf lies between us.” The whole show just collapsed into uncontrollable laughter.
This was all many years ago, and all long forgotten … until last week, while I was watching the latest miserable stories from the BP oil catastrophe, and the phrase resurfaced in my head.
“A Gulf lies between us.” I guess I was thinking about the giant gulf between what we see happening out on the ocean and our complete helplessness to be able to do anything about it. All we can do is watch helplessly as this slow-motion train wreck continues to unfold before us.
At least, after Hurricane Katrina, we could get involved … go down there to rescue some dogs and cats … get online and help find their families … adopt a homeless pet … send a donation.
This time, however, we don’t really even know what’s going on. Much is being deliberately hidden from us. Much more is going on deep down where no one can see it. The rescue groups aren’t allowed in. If you go down there, you just get turned away by the corporate police. There’s barely anywhere even to send a donation that’s really going to help the animals there.
In its own way, it’s all so very emblematic of the overall gulf that exists between our modern society and the rest of nature – the living world that most of us no longer really feel part of.
What’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico is bad enough. But the real gulf that we need to heal is the gulf that now exists between the artificial world we’ve created for ourselves and the true world we’ve lost contact with.
There’s lots of talk from pundits and politicians about this being a “defining moment” where maybe we take up the cause of new sources of energy and build better technologies. But the more basic defining moment will be when we decide that it’s time to heal the basic gulf … the rift that’s still growing between ourselves and our fellow animals … the chasm we’ve allowed to open up between ourselves and the earth from which we come — and to which we will inevitably return.
The real world – our true home – is not the huge, unwieldy, precarious construct of modern society, built on daily infusions from oil tankers, factory farms, financial institutions and all the other totally unnatural things we’re told we can’t live without. The real world is to be found in our connection to the magic of the animals, the beauty of nature, and the wonder of all life.
Once we re-make that connection, we will begin to heal the gulf.