Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is Teaching Professor and Co-Director of Environmental Studies at Georgetown University. He is the author of books including Peace Ecology (2015), and publishes widely on themes including social and environmental justice, nonviolence, politics, and emerging technologies.
Photo Credit: Randall Amster
Many years ago, in a different moment of grave uncertainty, I needed help with an old vehicle that I had been tinkering with but couldn’t get to start. This was back when you could still work on an engine with simple tools; these days, you need to be more of a hacker than a mechanic to fix anything in there. But even in this simpler time, you still needed an expert when the gears just wouldn’t turn like they should.
I was never really mechanically inclined, but had learned a lot on the fly while figuring out how to keep the wheels moving. And move they did, for many years, crisscrossing North America and bringing me to all 48 contiguous states and our border neighbors to the north and south. A lot of miles were marked, from sea to shining sea. The map of those years remains firmly intact as a space of refuge in my mind.
In fact, you might even say on some level that I had become the map from that journey. I didn’t just visit places—I internalized them. It wasn’t just ecotourism or romantic adventurism, but more so a revelation of trusting the world enough to get lost in it. This isn’t something I recall lightly, especially given our contemporary crises, but I still draw upon this capacious sense of place that inures wherever I may be.
It wasn’t exactly Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in those heady days, but I did briefly follow the trail set forth in classic road texts like On the Road and Blue Highways, among others. Being mostly a city person at that point, and even more narrowly an east coaster, the journey into America was a revelation, yielding cultural, spiritual, and ecological reverberations throughout my life.
My extended forays into the heart of America were equally revealing of my own heart. Years of learned urban mistrust yielded to profound gratitude for the repeated kindness of strangers that I found everywhere. Never again could I construct another as other, notwithstanding any outward appearances or sociopolitical leanings. Everyone held a part of the truth, and sociality wove it all together among us.
Not to be too sentimental, or to idealize erstwhile epochs, but it is worth noting that today’s headlines proclaiming widespread venality, malfeasance, disease, and decay often seem like a cynically curated view of people and the world around us. Really, our default mode may be one of “integrity, stability, and beauty” (as Aldo Leopold observed), in which humankind approximates the intrinsic patterns of nature.
The old vehicle that carried me into this cosmic nexus was special, even while being on its last legs (tires). When I decided to take her out for one more adventure, I couldn’t get the engine to turn over. I nearly took the whole thing apart and put it back together multiple times over the course of many weeks—and then finally, against my rules-of-the-road and do-it-yourself instincts, I called for assistance.
At the time of this tale, I was immersed in other obligations pressing on me beyond the call of the open road as glimpsed by the peripatetic pilgrim. This time I had a goal in mind, a destination that wasn’t just the journey itself, but instead with definite places to go and people to see. My world was still infused with serendipity and self-discovery, but increasingly I had to schedule my appointments with wonder.
A mobile mechanic arrived with myriad tools in an old panel truck. He seemed more like a tinkerer, a craftsman steeped in a long lineage of auto whisperers, right out of a post-apocalyptic novel where people reclaim lost arts and grizzled elders embody the world before a pandemic ravaged it. I’m pretty sure this guy could have fixed just about anything, from a horse-drawn carriage to the space shuttle.
He ruminated over the massive engine block, which was hidden under a smallish front hood by also having a substantial access portal within an insulated plastic shield (that ran very hot) right in the middle of the driving compartment. In other words, you were almost sitting on the engine while driving, which I now take to be a metaphor for the way our convenient lives ride atop a veneer of combustibility.
Hooking up testers, unplugging and replugging wires, inspecting fluid levels, and then infusing an electrical charge at some strategic points didn’t get the engine to turn over. But it yielded information, which as it turns out was still the mechanic’s stock in trade back in the day. Whereas today much of that info is supplied by a simple computer hookup, he utilized a more intuitive human method.
Furrowing his brow, I could tell my mechanical Yoda was about to make a diagnosis. I waited with bated breath to learn the fate of the patient, whose trajectory had literally mapped closely to mine. Together, we had pushed the envelope of our capacities and tolerance limits, far exceeding the manufacturer’s recommendations, and in the process finding ourselves to be more than the sum of our fabricated parts.
This moment mattered and I sensed that whatever came next would be revelatory—and then dropped the pearl. Clearing his throat, the zazen tinkerer opined: “Your problem is that you’re insufficiently grounded.” I stared. “I’m not really sure what that means.” Exactly, he nodded wordlessly. “Let me show you” (grasshopper, implied), as he mended a set of small frayed wires around the battery.
He packed up his tools and I cleaned things up, still pondering the analysis. Had I missed something obvious, and would I have found it myself after a while? Was the guy trying to be funny, or sarcastic even, or maybe a bit quizzical in the way an oracle often answers a question with a better one? I’ll never know for sure; a handwritten bill and $60 later (I did say it was a simpler time), and he was long gone.
Considering how much a massage goes for, or a therapy session, or a yoga membership, or a self-help retreat, I think I got off pretty cheaply all things considered: three score dollars for decades of inner contemplation over what it means to be grounded. I thought seeking higher ground, geographically and intellectually, would be enough. But maybe I—we—had lost sight of the ground while aiming for the sky.
Paradoxically, being more grounded has little to do with being better resourced and more comfortably situated. In fact, being too well settled can be a hindrance to being grounded, in the way that comfort can bring complacency. Indeed, it was my own goal-oriented, mechanical thinking (pun intended) that diminished my ability to engage holistically and organically.
This is true not only of engines, but of all the spheres and gears that make our (post)modern lives run. My sense of being increasingly settled but insufficiently grounded has only intensified over the ensuing years, with life’s associated obligations becoming paramount. I had let my internalized map become an external GPS to plot the best route and save time—and in the process I beat the traffic but lost my way.
This all came full circle when the coronavirus pandemic reared its head. Sheltering in place is necessary, but getting lost is often the best way to find oneself. Meandering along the empty sidewalk, tending the garden out back, or finding the forest within can help quiet the din so that we can hear the call of the wild. As the world spins inexorably, the charge is to keep my head in the clouds and feet on the ground.