Time to find a new creature to be

Ruben van Dijk
11 min readJan 3, 2022


Nature and happenstance constantly altered my plans. This road to Hoh Rainforest, an ancient rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington state, was one of many roads and footpaths I found to be temporarily closed — due to either mudslides, flooding, fallen trees, forest fires or extreme snowfall.

“Time has come now to stop being human
Time to find a new creature to be
Be a fish or a weed or a sparrow
For the earth has grown tired and all of your time has expired”

- Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, ‘Noble Experiment’

I had been travelling for nearly two months, the last week-and-a-half spent fully immersed in the anthropocentric bustle of Vancouver, BC and Portland, Oregon, when on one particular afternoon in late October I realised I had had enough. Downtown Portland, in particular, had been an absolute bombardment of sirens and traffic noise, bouncing endlessly through the city’s somewhat rundown concrete jungle. Anxiety drove me to what seemed to be a more forested area and before long I found myself surrounded by old-growth Douglas-firs, hemlocks and redcedars, all decked out in their best fall colours, in one of America’s largest urban forest reserves. In some of the more sheltered little valleys, where the mountain jays and woodpeckers sang louder than any distant freight train could, the silence was overwhelming. More overwhelming even than it had been three weeks prior, when I found myself knee-deep in snow on the Arctic Circle, many hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest town. I knew, of course, the silence in Forest Park was only relative, and sure enough it evaporated almost as quickly as I had found it.

Since the very beginning of this trip, in early September, one phrase had constantly been racing through my mind. “Moments can be monuments.” I had been saying it out loud to myself almost every day, and I said it in Forest Park. “Moments… can be monuments.”

It is the opening line to one of my favourite Silver Jews songs, ‘People’, off the band’s 1998 album American Water. I had discovered the song in the summer of 2019, mere days before the news broke of singer David Berman’s untimely passing, and have been a fan since. But an interview I did with singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins earlier this year placed that particular phrase at the forefront of my mind. She and I had talked at length about David Berman, Silver Jews — and about moments: split seconds of surprising significance, everyday encounters that resonated, for whatever reason. Her brilliant album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is full of them, and it was a privilege hearing her describe even more of those moments over Zoom. “I meet great people every day,” I remember her saying, “I swear, I fell in love with the person at my pharmacy on the phone for like three seconds. We were totally in love. It was really cool. And then, that was it.”

Ever since revisiting ‘People’ after my interview with Jenkins (though the song itself had not come up), that one phrase will just not go away. The fact that I spent an entire summer bonding over American Water with my now-girlfriend, only further amplified its significance. And so when I set forth to travel around British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest for several months, I imagined myself returning with “ᴍᴏᴍᴇɴᴛꜱ ᴄᴀɴ ʙᴇ ᴍᴏɴᴜᴍᴇɴᴛꜱ” tattooed all over my right arm, or at least to have perpetuated it in some other way. Turns out I am too cowardly to get a tattoo, so a 2,500 word essay it is.

My recollection of what ‘happened’ in Forest Park barely amounts to a memory, because nothing really did happen in that moment. I was simply walking. As I write this, it has already been reduced to the pictures I took that hardly do it justice; the music I decided to listen to as I felt the quiet euphoria fade (William Tyler’s soundtrack for the Kelly Reichardt film First Cow, obviously). It has become a mise-en-scène — with the depth of a carefully crafted Instagram story. It is in a similar way that I now ‘remember’ a winding highway in the Northern Rockies and Fairport Convention’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’; a sunlit city park in Vancouver and The Mountain Goats’ ‘Going To Port Washington’; snow as far as the eye can see and Mary Lattimore’s ‘Pine Trees’. Looking back on my three-month trip, I am forced to reconcile with how much I have already forgotten.

Whenever I used to listen to David Berman sing how “moments can be monuments”, I imagined everyday situations looming as large as Mount Rushmore, the Arc de Triomphe, or Christ the Redeemer, as something that could withstand the forces of nature, stand the test of time; enduring if not everlasting. “If your life is interesting and true” you could commemorate the woman you briefly spoke to on your way from the grocery store in the same way that people collectively commemorate heroes and historical events. Cassandra Jenkins did just that by carving out space within her songs for a security guard she met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a friend teaching her how to drive, a range of purple cumulus clouds she saw in Norway. And it is appealing to want to put small, individual moments on a pedestal like that.

I had been planning this trip, or a trip like this, ever since I graduated in the summer of 2019, wanting badly to break what had become a rather monotonous daily routine; to put myself in an unfamiliar place, hoping I would come back a little wiser, a little more sure of my future plans; and also to just travel, be elsewhere. COVID-19 had made me change the dates and destination of my trip numerous times and had naturally exacerbated said monotony and lack of perspective. And so I was eager to take in each and every moment as much as I could, and to treasure the best of them.

It took me a little too long, arguably, to realise that perhaps moments do not belong on pedestals.

The first few weeks saw me travelling at a frankly gruelling pace, partly because, for some reason, I thought it wise to start my months-long trip to Canada at the very onset of autumn. Wanting to stay ahead of the storms to come, I had explored a large part of Vancouver Island and the Vancouver area, and had driven a car all the way through the Canadian Rockies, up to Yukon and beyond the Arctic Circle by the first week of October. Another contributing factor to this was the rather fraught relationship I had developed with my travelling companion at the time, where it had become a near necessity to keep on the move, to seek new distractions that could temporarily obscure our friendship falling apart. And as it inevitably did fall apart, not long after our return to Vancouver from the Arctic, I found myself thinking of all the places we had visited and how much longer I now wished I had stayed there.

No longer staying with my friend in Vancouver, I spent the remainder of my trip alone. Not at all the way I had planned it. And although it did leave me with quite the hangover (severing a friendship and finding yourself suddenly wandering around an unfamiliar continent is, I can now confirm, a little anxiety-inducing), it also freed me from what I had realised was an unhealthy and perhaps even an unethical way of travelling.

I had always seen myself as a traveller, not a tourist. The arrogance of which only hit me then, having just traversed seventeen parallels and over nine thousand kilometres in minimal time, spending mere hours in places I could have easily spent another week or more. Why the rush, I now wondered, why go through areas of immense natural beauty with such propulsion. What exactly was I chasing, and why was I chasing anything at all?

Without a place to travel from, without a car, without company and without a plan whatsoever, I set forth to just be places for a while.

Around this time, I started reading Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse, in which the author confronts a wide range of radical ideas about the end of the world — all of it to manage his own anxieties about the climate crisis. He meets doomsday preppers, aspiring space colonists and an environmentalist group called the Dark Mountain Project, whose central objective is not to prevent the imminent climate catastrophe, but to completely overhaul mankind’s relationship to nature so that we can continue to live in the aftermath. O’Connell writes:

“The foundational myth of our civilization — the myth of progress, the understanding of the future as a line or a graph that will soar ever upward and to the right — had been fatally undermined in our time. And this myth […] was built on the foundation of a deeper myth: the myth of nature, the ancient idea that we, as a species, were fundamentally distinct from the world out of which we’d emerged. […] The Dark Mountain Project argued for a displacement of humanity from its seat at the centre and source of all meaning in the world. […] Those humans who survived the cataclysm would find themselves no longer above or beyond nature, but within it, a place where such categories as “human” and “nature” were no longer useful distinctions.”

Still having Silver Jews’ ‘People’ on heavy rotation, some of the lyrics beyond that one phrase were starting to grab my attention. “People ask people to watch their scotch / People send people up to the moon / When they return, well, there isn’t much / People be careful not to crest too soon,” and “People gotta synchronise to animal time.”

The pace at which I had been living, and the pace of the many lives around me, was starting to feel a little uncomfortable. With the risk of conflating my personal experience with the collective, I caught myself thinking that ‘we’ couldn’t possibly keep this up. Our incessant travelling; our need to consume at a moment’s notice at any time of day. Drive-through restaurants, banks, cafés; express grocery delivery. Checking into a new motel room every night. Everything that had seemed obvious, was starting to seem so obviously unsustainable.

A man in Portland talked about the disrepair most of the city’s infrastructure — the bridges over the Willamette River in particular — had fallen into and how, in the event of a megathrust earthquake, magnitude nine, all of it would fall apart instantly. With the odds of such an earthquake hitting the Oregon coast within the next sixty years being one in three, he had begun taking his own precautions, organising periodic disaster drills with his housemates. In the days following, I drove Highway 101 down the Oregon coast and constantly found myself in and out of areas marked as ‘Tsunami Evacuation Zones’. The possibility of such disaster permeated life in the Portland area, more so — and this is what was remarkable to me — than the very immediate consequences of climate change visible today. Three months before, the city had shattered its all-time record high temperature of 42 °C with a full five degrees. The county had suffered fifty-four heat-wave deaths, after having counted only two in the twenty years prior. Moreover, Portland’s already fragile infrastructure had literally begun melting. Trams that ran entirely on renewable energy and seemed “to offer exactly the sort of urban fast transit that the country needs to reduce carbon pollution […] could not withstand one of the region’s first wrenching encounters with the remade atmosphere.” Bracing for disaster, people seemed unable to imagine the one that was already here.

Driving through tsunami zones, walking through a dilapidating downtown, even when biking through quaint residential areas, I was surrounded by what I started to perceive as future ruins. It may have been O’Connell’s chapter on visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone that did it. In it, he describes how the Chernobyl area is slowly being reclaimed by moose, wild boars and wolves, turning into a forest once again — the way it was, barely forty years ago. “It was astonishing to behold how quickly we humans became irrelevant to the business of nature,” he writes. “All of [it] was weighted with the sad intimation of the world’s inevitable decline, the inbuilt obsolescence of our objects, our culture: the realisation that what will survive of us is garbage.”

During this time, a song by a largely forgotten San Francisco indie rock group called Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 started feeding into my consciousness, declaring the imminent end of this ‘Noble Experiment’ of ours. “Time has come now to stop being human / Time to find a new creature to be / Be a fish or a weed or a sparrow / For the earth has grown tired and all of your time has expired.”

I should, at this point, emphasise that during no part of this trip did I ever feel a depression (or a ‘climate depression’) coming on, with which I had struggled earlier that year. Recent events and observations had made me want to change my way of travelling, change my lifestyle and “synchronise to animal time” — and if anything, I was feeling rather optimistic about it. Having been surrounded by so many lives lived big and fast, I was excited to make mine smaller, slower — somehow.

Most of my last month in the Pacific Northwest I spent rather aimlessly, my daily activities mostly determined by impulse, nature and happenstance. One morning I got on a bus in Eugene, Oregon and rode it as far as it would take me, then walked alongside the McKenzie River for several hours until a recently collapsed footbridge — now split in two by a fallen Douglas-fir, over 80 metres tall — stopped me in my tracks, forcing me to turn back around. In Bend, Oregon, I spent a day-and-a-half on the side of a busy throughway trying to hitch a ride. A thousand cars must have passed me and my little cardboard ‘Portland’ sign by, until a man whose name I’ve already forgotten in a van I can no longer remember the colour of picked me up and drove me all the way.

Those days I grew fondest of. Uneventful days, slight when compared to a thousand lives, to a 400 year-old tree falling in a forest, oblivious to where it lands. Days that were slight but fulfilling, way more so than the days that I had spent chasing, moving fast.

The final song on Cassandra Jenkins’ An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is a lush seven-minute song called ‘The Ramble’. It is called ‘The Ramble’ because it was made for casual walks and unlike the other songs of the albums, it is an ambient track, one that features no vocals, just musical instruments and environmental sounds: children playing, a bike passing, birdsong. When listened to on a walk, it feels like a blueprint, something to aid you in experiencing the world around you. It is Jenkins’ way of saying: you’ve lived through my moments, now go live through your own.

I felt happiest on my trip, and happiest since, when life resembled ‘The Ramble’. When it was not about seeking singular moments to put on pedestals, in need of commemoration, as if they were a scarcity, a precious object. I realised that, instead, moments are the rare resource we are in excess of, and that I wanted to spend my time celebrating their coming and going instead. Making a monument out of a life of moments, rather than any single one. Appreciating the everyday. Absolving myself of the rush, the constant pursuit. I did not want to crest too soon.

Want to hear me talk about Cassandra Jenkins and Silver Jews a bit more? I recently appeared on St. Paul’s Boutique to discuss American Water [in Dutch].

You can read my interview with Cassandra Jenkins over at fr-nt.nl.



Ruben van Dijk

Music journalist for Front.