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S-Town Is A Eulogy For The Planet

The world’s most downloaded podcast perfectly captures this moment in time.

(ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH/CLIMATE CHANGE) After listening to the podcast “S-Town” by investigative journalist Brian Reed, I am left with a multitude of feelings, but the overwhelming one is sadness. The poignant story starts as an investigation of a purported murder and morphs into a complicated portrayal of a local genius named John B. McLemore and his relationships with the residents of Woodstock, Alabama, or, as he christened it: “S*** Town.”

John B, as he was called, was an autodidact who taught himself how to repair rare and expensive antique clocks and had an encyclopedic mind that remembered everything he read. He was a mechanical genius who could hand-tool a tiny part for an ancient clock without diagrams or foreknowledge. His could hold forth for hours on topics far and wide, but his real obsession was the study of time – from sundials to Einstein’s theory of relativity.

He suffered from depression and quite likely poisoned himself with mercury as he replicated a centuries-old technique called “fire guilding” to gold plate clocks. He rescued stray dogs and had anywhere from 13 to 20 dogs living on his 134 acres in their very own dog house that he built. Without revealing too much, he was a closeted gay man who was looking for love in all the wrong places, who developed an addiction to pain.

S-Town is a novelistic and complex portrayal of a man struggling to understand his place in a world gone mad; and who gradually adopts the “f*** it” ethos of his Southern Gothic corner of that world and goes mad himself. But not before appreciating and writing about its beauty and wonder. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, he did not go gently into that good night. He did indeed rage, rage against the dying of the light.

What the podcast captures, more than anything I’ve read or watched, is a sense of time running out on this “blue orb” of a planet. The inexorable poisoning of his own mind echoes the slow strangulation of the earth. A sensitive person prone to depression, John B. could see the effects of climate change and railed against it, all the while surrounded by people who denied its existence. Of all of his rambling lectures, he regularly returned to one theme: we are killing the planet we live on and we will not survive it as a species.

We at Global Animal, chronicling the sixth extinction, the bleaching of two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef, the inexorable rise the seas that will drown coastal cities and create a billion climate refugees, are not unschooled in the slow-moving catastrophe humans are creating.

We report with horror the venal machinations of the Trump administration acting out its own insanity in gutting the EPA and rescinding regulations that protect our air, food, and water. We are hardened and informed. But something about S-Town and the pathos of John B’s pain has slipped through and hit us in unexpected ways. It is a feeling of losses experienced and losses to come. I am reminded of the scene in Blade Runner, when the dying replicant Roy Batty talks to Harrison Ford, ending a speech about the wonders he’s seen with: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

There are many pictures floating around the web of John B and the inhabitants of Woodstock. To post them might ruin the imaginative process of listening to John and the other characters. However, two photos perfectly symbolize the forces at play in today’s world (spoiler alert).

The first is a photo of a maze John built on his property. Meticulously conceived, planted and tended it is a perfect example of stewardship.

The second photo is after John is no longer able to care for it and his property has been purchased by Kendall Burt, the local lumber tycoon (3K Lumber).

Burt said: “I would like to see the maze reach maturity but I probably will not put forth the effort or the money to do so. But it’s a real neat concept.”

And so, neglected, drying up from drought, surrounded by soon-to-be culled forest, the maze dies. Neat.

S-town, in miniature, perfectly captures the the two mindsets at play in the world right now. One is filled with wonder and awe for the planet we inhabit, while driven nearly mad from grieving its destruction. The other is concerned only with money, determined to squeeze the last drop of blood from earth, while ignoring the reality we are creating for ourselves. John B. was in the first mindset, but In the time of Trump, the second “f*** it” mindset is winning.

Time to die, indeed.

Arthur Jeon
Co-founder, Global Animal

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