Of Creepers and Trees

Even gods have their seasons. In summer one may be a pantheist, may consider oneself part of Nature, but in autumn one can only take oneself for a human being.   Karel Capek


New England glories in autumn. The riotous colors of fall invite walking across fields and into the woods. Our perspective on the landscape shifts. Trees that once sat quietly cloaked in green, call out in their reds, yellow and orange. They dress differently as winter comes: a final splurge before the last leaf falls to November's wind. The humble beauty of autumn offers particular solice this year as I seek some refuge from the relentless election season's assault on good senses.

I no longer teach in the autumn semester because I love this time in New England and want to stay on to enjoy the last roses, leaf piles and wood smoke in the air. Now, I pack for the journey back to Florida, go for long walks, come in for tea in the afternoon to read and prepare for the courses I will teach at Eckerd College during spring semester.  In addition to the stalwart "Media and Foreign Policy," I am bringing back my "Globalization Debate" after a five year hiatus.

Reading in on the scholarship written after the 2008 Great Recession changed our globalization expectations is a sobering experience. Hyper-globalizers are muted now.  Bruce Greenwald captures the mood by the title of his pro-globalization book: globalization: n. the irrational fear that someone in China will take your job. Rational or not,  American citizens currently think the most important foreign policy issue facing the country is "protecting the jobs of American workers." As evidenced in last night's foreign policy debate, both President Obama and Governor Romney seem to have read the data: 84 percent of respondents in both parties identified jobs as the most important foreign policy issue in the 2012 Chicago Council on Global Affairs Poll. 

Agreeing on the problem, American voters are dead evenly split on whether less or more government in relationship to market forces offers the best path to a solution.  We are not alone. Voters in Greece, Italy, France have already spoken this year, some repeatedly. Other elections follow, causing scholars to note the differentiated nation state responses to the pressures of economic globalization as their citizens demand protection from the negatives of an integrated global economy.  

What was once seen as a one size fits all inevitability, globalization is now being viewed, with greater frequency by skeptical scholars, as a process to be managed by the state. In The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy, Dani Rodrik (2011) insists on a new globalization narrative:

one that embraces an ineluctable tension: we cannot simultaneously pursue democracy, national self-determination, and economic globalization. When the social arrangements of democracies inevitably clash with the international demands of globalization, national priorities should take precedence. 

After all he says, it was the state, not global governance, to the rescue following the financial collapse of 2008. State directed capitalism like China's seemed to have weathered the storm blowing out of wall street with far greater ease than in the neo-liberal heartland of the West. Indications are that may not last, but I sensed the relative shift back to state power as the world pivots toward Asia and wrote about it in my 2009 SAIS Review piece, Statecraft at the Crossroads. Now, I am in more distinguished company.  It is as if we are seeing that old heirarchical tree in the landscape once again. Still, others like Manuel Lima, have their eyes on the powerful networking forces that lay waste to boundaries. 


Like Lima, my autumnal eye is not simply attracted to trees, it focuses on the creepers too. The benign and lovely Virginia Creeper reveals what she has been up to all summer by surprising from her perch on trees, shrubs, rocks and walls.


Even though Miss Virginia can be a bit unruly, when removing invasive weeds I leave a few of her tendrils to enjoy in this season. I am less kind to the ravaging English Ivy: a pest that will smother my woodland paths and choke my trees given a chance. When did that once properly behaved ivy become so vicious that people campaign to remove it from public lands? Now, a criminal invasive in some places, ivy is fair game for claw and snip. Eradication strategies abound.  

So, too, with that other ivy, the poison one thriving in conditions of global warming. In fall thankfully, there is no longer a chance of sneak attack. Now red and yellow, poison ivy does its creeping boldly, revealing where it has been hiding all summer to ambush me with rashes and welts. 


After my camera walk yesterday,  I now know my neighbor is the culprit. She seems to be harboring this fugitive in wooded areas on the other side of our boundary line. No wonder poison ivy finds its way easily around stone walls and trees. It isn't native in my garden but can it really be considered foreign? For an answer over a cup of Earl Grey, I read the great Wisława Szymborska's poem Psalm (1976):

Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!

How many clouds float past them with impunity;

how much desert sand shifts from one land to another; how many mountain pebbles tumble onto foreign soil in provocative hops!

Need I mention every single bird that flies in the face of frontiers

or alights on the roadblock at the border?

A humble robin - still, its tail resides abroad

while its beak stays home. If that weren't enough, it won't stop bobbing!

Among innumerable insects, I'll single out only the ant between the border guard's left and right boots

blithely ignoring the questions "Where from?" and "Where to?"


Only what is human can truly be foreign.

The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles, and wind.

Coming back to the globalization literature this autumn is to be reminded of the human lives at the center of the swirling abstractions in the globalization debate. Katherine Boo (2012), author of the stunning Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity shows us how very foreign some human lives can be. Boo documented the Mumbai slum dwellers' lives because, she said, globalization was overtheorized and underreported.  Reading her is coming face to face with the diversity of human existence in our bewildering age of global change and inequality. One of the greatest early theoreticians of the networked society, Manuel Castells is now observing and reporting from the front lines too. He collaborates on a remarkable Aftermath Project with a companion book (2012) by the same title Aftermath

“This is a new beginning. The aftermath of the crisis is not only social devastation, it’s not only the political crisis, it’s not only Greece going down. It’s also an aftermath in the sense of a reconnection between society and the political system.”

Surprisingly perhaps, the aftermath of the crisis he chronicles is a plural one. There is no uniform human response to deepening spiraling crisis.  Robert Frost shows us the naturally conflicting world views in his poem Mending Wall:


...He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That wants it down.

Those of us who want walls and those of us who don't will work out our objectives politically. The politics will play out differently within our particular polities and among them globally, intensifying  plurality in world politics. The idea that globalization has or will produce an "undifferentiated universal human culture" is simply a rationalist illusion, writes Castells, who argues that, on the contrary, we are moving toward a more complex, plural but interdependent world. It is a world full of all manner of creepers and trees. We contending humans will wall or weed them out to check against the destruction and loses of history. Or, we will invite them into our garden existence, trying all the while to control the meaning in our lives. 


Except where otherwise noted, all original work produced by Donna Oglesby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License