Notes from the Wasteland

Photo by David Mark, public domain.

Photo by David Mark, public domain.

Talk of drought in California isn’t uncommon.  Normally it means lower levels in reservoirs and thinner snowpacks in the Sierras.  Bad news for skiers, and boaters, and farmers, perhaps, and an earlier start to the fire season, but’s it’s January, and for those who don’t ski, or boat, or farm, it’s easy to ignore until summer. But this time it’s different. This year it simply will not rain.

Even in “dry” winters, you see warnings that river currents are cold and swift.  This year the river’s so low there is no visible current.  Half of the local lawns are brown, and those that are green invite visits from the “water patrols” the districts threaten to form.  They say the reservoir from which we get our drinking water is at 17%; that image isn’t easy to forget.

A year ago, I posted a report from the National Intelligence Council.  Every four years, the NIC, representing every US intelligence agency, collaborates on a summary of the world situation to give the incoming president.  They post the report online for anyone to read.  After the last presidential election, the NIC gave the administration a report called Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds:

Click for the text of the whole report

I discussed the report in detail in a post in December, 2012, but it’s worth reviewing one of the four “Megatrends” the report identified.  The CIA, the NSA, the FBI, and the 13 other agencies that compiled the report do not waste time debating climate change; they accept it as a given and factor it into predictions, saying that by 2030:

Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle-class. Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources. Climate change analysis suggests that the severity of existing weather patterns will intensify, with wet areas getting wetter and dry and arid areas becoming more so.

What gives you pause is their conclusion:

We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future.

At this time, if we have to depend on our “policymakers and their private sector partners” to be proactive, we’re screwed, but there are different ways to look at our situation.  As usual, I try to relate literal “truth” to archetypal patterns, and in this case, the obvious mythic story is that of the Wasteland.

The story relates how Camelot fell apart.  How the rift between Arthur and his queen threw the land into ruin.  How the ailing king sent his knights in search of the Holy Grail, the one thing that could restore the barren world.  Those who reached the Grail Castle found another mysterious king inside, wounded through the testicles, in constant pain but unable to die.  His only relief by day was to float in a boat on a lake near the castle.  For this reason, he was known as “The Fisher King.”  He could only be healed by the right knight arriving at the castle to ask the right question.

Antecedents to the story are ancient and predate the Arthurian tales, perhaps by thousands of years.  In writing his poem, The Waste Land (1922), T.S. Eliot relied on an anthropological study, From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston, who in turn, drew on The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazier’s study of sacred kingship.

In the mythic cycle Frazier explored, the earthly king was “married” to the Goddess of the Land.  His potency and the earth’s fertility were one.  When he became old and infirm or impotent, the health of the land suffered.  He was ritually killed and a new king selected.  We find echoes of this in Arthur’s estrangement from Guinevere, though of course by then, the era when monarchs submitted to sacrifice was past.

We aren’t ruled by kings anymore, but if we consider “governments” alongside the word, “impotent,” and if we ignore what Viagra can fix, we find these meanings: “weak; ineffective, powerless or helpless; having no self-control.”

Yet the news isn’t all bad, and that is a theme I plan to explore in a series of posts exploring the Wasteland.  For one thing, the Grail hides there and nowhere else.  For another, the old stories never suggest that rulers can save us.  Renewal comes from the outsider, the dummling, the fool, Parsifal the rustic youth, or a carpenter from Nazareth.  

There are literally thousands of people today, already in or ready to enter the metaphorical forest on a quest for better ways to live.  I plan to discuss a few of their stories here.

“Arming the Grail Knights” by Edward Burne-Jones, tapestry, 1890’s, public domain

14 thoughts on “Notes from the Wasteland

  1. Great post. The Fisher King is a myth for our time and we can learn a lot from the story.
    In a hopeful period I thought Obama may be Parsifal because of the similarities between his life and Parsifal and wrote an article about it on my blog. I am sadder and wiser now and look forward to your future posts on this subject.

    Janet Kane


    • Having invested so much hope, I know my own disappointment with this administration is all the more profound. At the same time, a year ago I saw a great example of democracy in action at the County Planning Commission level, and I remain convinced that blanket political apathy is the worst option.

      I generally only have a vague idea of where any post is going, so I look forward to seeing future ones on this theme as well. Thanks for your comment.


  2. “There are literally thousands of people today, already in or ready to enter the metaphorical forest on a quest for better ways to live.”

    Great post Morgan! I agree very much with you.


  3. Cant wait to see where you keep taking this stream of thought. speaking of which, I was advised 15 years ago or so that I should have gone into law specializing in water rights since that would be what global future wars would be about. we aren’t there yet, but you know how many of the US states are suing each other over water rights and access? Its crazy


    • I never quite know where I’m going until I get there, and in this case, there are so many possible directions. One could write for a year just on “water” alone. Your comments on water rights brings to mind a recent news story on how piping water to Los Angeles has decimated the once fertile Owens Valley in the southeastern part of the state. And that brought to mind Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

      This part of the state, we are told, has essentially a Mediterranean climate. The greenery we have grown used to isn’t the norm, but even “reverting to the mean” is not going to be easy.


  4. I suspect many in California other than Los Angeles would like to get their hands on William Mulholland and other big water thieves. Lots of food for thought here as usual, Morgan. Thanks.


  5. As someone with more than a passing interest in Arthuriana I certainly look forward to your posts, Morgan, as they expound on the wasteland theme. (Good Welsh name that, Morgan, and with lots of Arthurian echoes too…)


    • The thickets are pretty thick, meaning there are so many choices on where to focus. A few blog posts can’t do more than hint at the volume of work that has already been published, but that’s not really a bad thing. At some point I’m going to have to circle around and focus on water itself, but that too is a huge undertaking. Guess I won’t run out of things to blog about any time soon.


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