None of this is permanent | Issue #24
Whether that is an alarming or comforting sentiment is up to you.
Placeful is a biweekly newsletter exploring sense of place, sustainability, and the actions we can take to more deeply engage with our communities and wild spaces. Each issue covers a new topic. To learn more about the “why” behind Placeful, start here.
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It’s beginning to feel like spring here in Moab. The temperature is warming, tourists are returning, and local farmers and gardeners are switching from planning mode to active mode, tilling and planting early spring crops.
My partner and I took a good long look at the sandy patch of soil in front of our little apartment, and made a commitment to spruce it up this year. We even went so far as to build an herb spiral and fill it with soil, dreaming of fresh basil and chives.
At first I was hesitant to invest any time or money into our little plot. The soil isn’t great, tree roots are running throughout it, and beyond that, it’s difficult to want to invest in an apartment we don’t plan to rent forever.
But then again, we won’t technically be anywhere forever.
Anytime I am nervous to make a short-term investment in a space, I am reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s asparagus patch habit. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver shares that in the yard of each place she owned (and in some she rented) she planted a small asparagus patch. I think this is profoundly kind, especially considering young asparagus patches should not be harvested in the first three years. As Kingsolver writes, “A too-young plant gets discouraged when you whack off its every attempt to send up new shoots in the spring, abuse that will make the plant sink into vegetable despair and die.” A sad thought.
I wanted to share these stories because I’ve been thinking a lot about impermanence. This is partly arriving out of my self-assurance that building a beautiful space that I enjoy is okay, even if that enjoyment is short-lived. However, I’ve also been thinking about impermanence in regards to the extreme weather in Texas and other areas of the country.
These extreme weather events make me sad and worried about the future. Forget investing in my little herb garden—how can I find it within myself to stay hopeful for the future when so much seems uncertain and frighteningly insecure? How do we cope with the sudden realization that systems we thought were safe are actually fallible when put to the test?
I’m not sure I know the answer to that, but I have found solace in impermanence, the topic of today’s issue of Placeful. Ourselves, our communities, and the wider world are always changing, and to choose not to engage because we are waiting to feel secure means we could miss out on many chances at joy along the way. So in the spirit of embracing impermanence, let’s dig in.
Impermanence in Buddhism
Much of the discourse around impermanence stems from Buddhist teachings. In Buddhism, impermanence is intertwined with the concepts of pain and suffering. Everything that exists is subject to change, creating the right conditions for suffering. After all, the arrival of something new means saying goodbye to something lost.
However, the acceptance of impermanence can also bring us peace. Norman Fischer, a practicing Buddhist, summarizes the importance of impermanence to these teachings here:
To understand impermanence at the deepest possible level (we all understand it at superficial levels), and to merge with it fully, is the whole of the Buddhist path. The Buddha’s final words express this: Impermanence is inescapable. Everything vanishes. Therefore there is nothing more important than continuing the path with diligence. All other options either deny or short-shrift the problem.
Learning to understand impermanence is a practice, and one that can take a lifetime to master. Though there is grief to be found in this understanding, there are also opportunities to use it for our collective benefit, as I’ll explain later.
Learning to accept impermanence
Take a look around you. What in your life feels impermanent? What feels more permanent (but technically still isn’t)?
Our communities are one of these things that feel permanent, but are constantly changing. The whole of the Colorado Plateau was underwater at many points during our planet’s long history. And since people arrived on this continent, the Moab Valley has been home to many different cultures and people. The U.S. as a sovereign nation is only 243 years old, and one of the nearby mountains ranges to Moab, the Henry Mountains, were the last to be added to the map of our 48-contiguous states. Living my day-to-day life I don’t typically think about these things. It feels like the U.S. and Moab have always been here, and they will probably remain in existance while I am alive.
Despite our best efforts, there isn’t much that we truly have control over. Weather changes. People age. Governmental bodies come and go. People will always strive to ensure the security of their families and communities, but there is one thing we know for sure: nothing is permanent. This thought can be alarming, but it doesn’t always have to be.
Just as negative occurrences are not permanent, neither are positive ones. Realizing this is important to constructing a balanced perspective. Becoming aware of the impermanence of all situations can fuel one’s passion for relishing and savoring the wonderful parts of life.
-Mike Oppland for Positive Psychology
Impermanence should not prevent us from finding joy; in fact, it is one of joy’s many foundations.
Impermanence and placefulness
The communities where we live have not always existed. Each community has its own history, it’s own triumphs and losses. So too have the people who live in them on an individual scale. Someday, it’s likely that our communities will cease to exist in their current forms. Nothing is permanent—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give them our all while we are here.
The things that beautify and strengthen our communities disregard the idea of impermanance. We write books knowing that someday they may go out of print. We paint murals that get painted over, and then painted over again. We bake intricate recipes, only to devour them moments later.
The outlets through which we express our humanity and our connection to place are impermanent, and that makes them all the more special. We can savor them, and then make room for new ideas and practices when it’s time. As Norman Fischer writes, "Impermanence is not only loss; it is also change, and change can be refreshing and renewing.”
Incorporating impermanence into our practice of placefulness means we should savor what we have while it is here, while simultaneously doing everything we can to ensure that the changes that are guaranteed to come are fair, equitable, and leave our communities better off than before. Holding onto the status quo only means falling behind in a world where change is a constant.
One area that this is most obvious to me is in disaster preparation. If anything good is to come out of the tragic events that happened in Texas last week, I hope it is that communities, businesses, and legislatures begin to take action to prepare for a changing climate. To ignore it at this point is to stand at odds with science and impermanence, and the cost will be more lives lost.
“Continuing the path with diligence”
Living in a world of impermanence is a blessing—after all, who doesn’t crave some amount of variation in their lives? Whether it’s planting an asparagus patch that you’ll eventually leave behind, or spearheading a disaster preparedness plan, I hope you’ll savor each moment that you have in your community—and I hope you welcome change when it inevitably comes knocking.
What joy can you find in impermanence today? For me, it’s the changing seasons. I’ve just noticed that the lilies are starting to emerge, one of my favorite signals that spring is coming.
Placeful is a biweekly email newsletter containing personal reflections and reporting on sense of place and sustainability. Every other week I delve into a new topic, wrapping it up with an action item that will help readers foster deeper connections to the natural, cultural, built, and historic environments around them. Read more about Placeful.
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