The River Between Us

"And the problem with our problem is that it puts us off the real problem, the biggest problem of all: global climate change, and the mass species extinction even now unfolding on Earth."


Excerpt from Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, Copyright  2020 by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield; used by permission of Trinity University Press.


The River between Us

Kurt Caswell

Excerpt from Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy


On October 9, 2017, at about 8 p.m., a nineteen-year-old student at the university where I teach was escorted to the campus police headquarters for a welfare check. Once inside the building, he pulled a handgun, killed the campus police officer leading him in, and fled on foot. Campus, city, and state police, along with county sheriff’s deputies and a SWAT team, captured him in about two hours. The morning after, the university community was on edge. Police sirens sang all over campus because everything, everyone, every twittering leaf looked like a bomb about to explode.


The shooting on my campus followed the then deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history in Las Vegas, which followed other shootings in schools, in public places, and in private homes: this shooting, that shooting, whatever shooting. Meanwhile, our united states have endured unprecedented wildland fires in the West, frequent and destructive hurricanes in the South and East, and massive flooding in the riverlands. And these events parallel the latest newsworthy scandals—for example, Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein, for decades of sexual misconduct. And then come the lies from his famous friends and colleagues in order to distance themselves from him—“I had no idea!”—initially, the Clintons, Meryl Streep (a self-proclaimed champion of women and the oppressed), and Judi Dench, followed by many, many others. They all knew and did nothing because it was in their interest to do nothing: money and power, fame and fortune, keeping it for them, keeping it from us. And the champion headliner of all time, President Trump, exchanging threats with North Korea, then later, Iran, tossing about words to seed a garden in hell.


To live in America in the twenty-first century is to live inside a bubble flush with oxygen while someone goes around distributing matches.


The United States is not the greatest country in the world.


The president of the United States is not the leader of the free world.


And the American Dream—if ever it was alive at all—is dead.


We all know these three truths, and still our politicians, our corporations, and our media spoon lies down our throats to keep us, the citizenry, doing what is in their best interest: buy, spend, consume, keep your mouth shut.


Dial it out a few hundred miles into Earth orbit, and note that these problems are human problems: human created, and of concern almost exclusively to humans. They are distractions, merely, from real problems. They are as petty as we are petty, and while we all champion our special causes on Facebook and Twitter, another disaster beats us flat.


Trump is not the problem, nor is he the answer. His tactics of chaos and obfuscation are a distraction, merely. No matter your position, you and I, all of us contributed to the cultural, economic, and political climate in which Trump was elected. Everything you love or despise about Trump is a reflection of us, which means it is a reflection of you. So then, you are the problem. And I am the problem. We are all the problem. And the problem with our problem is that it puts us off the real problem, the biggest problem of all: global climate change, and the mass species extinction even now unfolding on Earth.


In his essential book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton spells out the future of humanity in this world we have created. He does not offer a possibility of climate change impacts if we don’t take action now; climate action is the impotent cry of the establishment. And he does not mourn the bunnies and bees of our special time on Earth. The Earth will be just fine without us, just as it was before us, and just as Mars is fine, perfect and beautiful, even, with no life at all. What Scranton is willing to say, and what we all know is true but are unwilling to accept, is that climate change will lead to the collapse of our civilization and all its wonders. “This civilization is already dead,” writes Scranton.


Things are going to look a lot different from here on out, and you and I are powerless against it. Trump is powerless against it. Monsanto and Exxon and Amazon are powerless against it. The United Nations is powerless against it.


My father gave thirty-four years of his life to working for the U.S. Forest Service before he went to work for the state of Idaho, and then to Washington D.C. to direct the Bureau of Land Management under President Bush. Mine was a boyhood in wild places, a collection of government houses around a district office in the mountains in Oregon. There I roamed freely among the trees and creeks, caught lizards sunning on the rocks, fished from a canoe in the lake near the house, and attended a school of just over thirty students, K through eighth grade. To me, in those days, the world was a wilderness with a few scattered cities, none of which I had ever seen. It wasn’t until high school, or even after, that I realized that while fossil fuels are flowing, the world appears to be just the opposite: a sea of cities whose influence pushes into the few remaining and scattered wildlands. And this is so, more and more each day.


There is no solution to the problem of global climate change. Democracy and its capitalist economy will not fix it. A dictator and a communist economy will not fix it. A culture war between us and them will not fix it. A race war will not fix it. A gender war between men and women will not fix it. I recycle, avoid driving, and turn off lights and electronics in my house that I’m not using, and even if everyone in the world does so, too, the Earth’s warmer future will still arrive. It is here already. And what is left for us to do is: cope, adapt, endure.


I lived and taught school for a year on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. During that time and after, I read widely about Navajo history and culture. In the Navajo creation story, there is a time when women and men come to such odds that the Creator decides the only solution is to separate them by a river. The men are forced to live on one side, the women are forced to live on the other. Time passes, and the people begin to complain. The women miss what the men have to offer, and the men miss what the women have to offer. Each discovers that men and women are not the same, and they are not equal; men and women are complementary. Women possess attributes that the men do not have. Men possess attributes that the women do not have. In the Navajo story, the lamentations of the women and men finally prompts the Creator to put them all back on the same side of the river, and they live together with their differences, as before. 


In the warmer future we have created, human beings—all of us, everywhere—are going to face real challenges, challenges that threaten even our species’ viability. The extinction of Homo sapiens is not a Hollywood movie script only; it’s a real possibility within the next century. There is no more time to publicly honor all our private wounds. Instead, we must honor our strengths and our differences. Then, one group of people with similar beliefs and values (a kind of tribe) may use their strengths to help another group of people with different beliefs and values. Globalism is not the answer because its underlying mission is to further consolidate wealth and resources, a system designed to ensure that most of us serve a few of them. The answer, or perhaps our best chance, is some form of cooperative tribalism, which brings together the best of what each group has to offer to benefit the whole. And groups would cooperate with each other because we have a common enemy: global climate change, which is to say, ourselves.


In the warmer future, women and men are going to need each other. Indigenous people and so called nonindigenous people are going to need each other. People with darker skin tones and people with lighter skin tones are going to need each other. People whose lives are guided by the Quran and people whose lives are guided by the Bible are going to need each other. In fact, we need each other now.


If we can’t all come over to the same side of the river, and then walk together onto higher ground, it is the river that will inundate both sides and wash everything out to sea.


Kurt Caswell teaches writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University.


Excerpt from Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, Copyright  2020 by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield; used by permission of Trinity University Press.


For more information on this project, please visit