Archive for the 'Environmentalism' Category

Jul 23 2015

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Belated Readercon Recap: Towards a Literature of the Anthropocene

LCRW 33 in my mom's raspberry patch

LCRW 33 in my mom’s raspberry patch

One LCRW theme issue, two Readercon panels and a lot of hallway/bar/dealer’s room conversation (not to mention years of bumping around blindly alone in the dark), have only whetted my appetite for a much broader, sustained conversation about the promise and pitfalls of writing fiction in and about the anthropocene epoch. Don’t get me wrong–the panels were great (see previous post for titles/descriptions) and I even got to moderate one of them. But I confess I am not particularly good at steering discussion, especially not in person, in front of a crowd, with four smarter, more eloquent people all of whom have equally valid and quite distinct perspectives. And there just wasn’t enough time to cover it all. My fellow panelists laid out fascinating ideas, and I got a decent line in here and there, but we barely got into stuff I thought we could have spent a whole panel on, or two, or seven. And I had all these lovely panel notes I didn’t even get to!

One of my hall conversations afterward was with Emily Wagner, program chair, who I asked for more like that next year. “Propose panels,” she said, and I will. But I’m also going to do what I can to get people talking in the meantime.

To that end, I’ve convinced a few of the LCRW 33 contributors to field some questions about how they apply these ideas in their own work. I’ll be posting those interviews here over the next couple weeks, and doing a few interviews myself elsewhere (here’s one with the UK-based Nottingham Writers’ Society).

First, though, I thought I’d recap the Readercon discussion for those who missed it (insofar as I remember it), share some of those notes I haven’t yet managed to get the good out of, and lay out the directions in which I think this conversation needs to go.

  • I opened with a definition of the anthropocene: a new epoch in the history of time in which humans are the dominating influence on the trajectory of life on earth. The concept places us on a level with geological and even astrophysical processes. Part of the point, I think, is to make people realize the scale at which what we do has an impact. There is very little “nature” left in the world that’s the same as it would have been if we hadn’t become what we are: forests, deserts, the ocean floor, as far away from humans as you can get, you can almost always see evidence of our impact. Which presents a fascinating perspective on the way human institutions interact with natural ones. Invasive species, domestication, genetic engineering, breeding, habitat loss, which species thrive, which go extinct, which reach the verge of going extinct and then we rescue. Unintended consequences. Not much of which I managed to say, actually, besides the basic definition. Time constraints, me not wanting to talk too much.
  • Vandana Singh brought up the limitations of the concept of the anthropocene: that it makes humanity seem monolithic rather than complex and incredibly varied. The people most responsible for altering the climate, habitat, animal and human life on this planet are relatively few and immensely privileged. The people who are by far the most impacted are those with the least impact themselves. She mentioned the 18 million Bangladeshis who are already in the process of being displaced by rising waters. Michael J. Daley in the solarpunk panel brought up that William Gibson quote which Readercon’s bylines require be brought up at least once every year:

    “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

  • We talked about climate change and its impacts, about the viability of various technological solutions/mitigations including nuclear power, solar, batteries, desalination plants. Gwendolyn Clare brought up geoengineering: ejecting coolant chemicals or particulates into the atmosphere to dim the sunlight/mitigate greenhouse effect. To me, that’s a terrifying prospect, useful only as a threat, “Here’s what we might have to resort to if you people can’t get it together and stop using fossil fuels,” but Gwendolyn seemed to consider it a viable option. I would have loved to ask her more about that but did not manage to corner her in the halls.
  • We talked about the dominant narratives of climate change, the propaganda and PR, how wrong and blindered they are and why. It’s hard to change those narratives because the institutions that support them (corporations, governments) are so huge and we rely on them for so much. The cruise ship metaphor came up: the world is too big and has too much momentum to turn or stop on a dime. A change in trajectory takes time. The implication being that we’re pretty much doomed to slam into that iceberg and take to the lifeboats.
  • We talked about science fiction’s strong tendencies to dystopianism and escapism and how those tendencies can gloss past the real problems we’re facing rather than encourage practical thinking. Michael J. Daley, in both the anthropocene and solarpunk panels, brought up the problem of presenting utopian visions of society in fiction, the fact that utopia doesn’t necessarily include a conflict that can drive a story. In neither panel did we get too deep into the ways around that problem, but I think it was Max Gladstone who said that a setting is just a setting, the conflict and the story comes from the people you place in that setting.
  • We talked about reader expectations. People who’ve been brought up on a steady diet of the dominant narrative expect more of it, and it’s a very delicate, limiting thing trying to address those expectations while also providing counter-narrative. Vandana Singh talked about teaching climate change to kids, how she found she needed not just to provide information but to address the emotional impact of that information at the same time. Finding out that humanity is destroying the world isn’t an easy thing. It was Max Gladstone again who tried to bring this back around to story and character–but I don’t think he quite got the chance to make the connection that right there in those emotional consequences is a way to tell a compelling story.
  • We talked (a little in both panels, but much more in the solarpunk panel) about progressivism in the history of SF and previous forward- (and backward-) looking movements in the genre, particularly cyberpunk and steampunk. This was surprising and enlightening for me: in my preparations I spent some time thinking about classic SF and how it almost incidentally influenced the trajectory of technology: not spaceships or flying cars, but ipads and cellphones. Star Trek was a naive form of social SF: a black female officer on the bridge of the Enterprise. Cyberpunk, though, was way more prescient; it was depicting a future nearer to hand and actively pushing forward technological concepts as well as social structures that had already been demonstrated in their infancy. Whereas steampunk seems to represent the opposite tendencies: the real world is increasingly shitty, technology’s advancement has outpaced our capacity to adapt to it socially, so let’s escape back to a simpler time and postulate this vast, utterly impractical escapist utopia. Advocates of the nascent solarpunk movement want something that combines the utopian aesthetics of the latter with the practical forward-thinking of the former. I went into that second panel with some healthy skepticism, but listening to them talk about it, it started to sound like a pretty solid idea. Though I wish they’d decided to call it something else–the word “solar” is too limiting. Ecopunk.
    Ecopunk?

    Ecopunk?

  • Towards the end of the anthropocene panel, I slipped in part of an idea I had. Earlier, talking about the value of the anthropocene as a concept, Vandana Singh brought up the question of what separates us from animals and how the answer keeps slipping the more we learn. First it was tools, but now we know all kinds of animals use tools. Then we thought it was language, but birds and apes and even insects maybe have language. I suggested the concept of narrative. There’s some debate as to when the anthropocene epoch began: the ’70s? the industrial revolution? But as far as it applies to narrative, I feel like there’s a strong argument the anthropocene began with the dawn of the dreamtime, the origin of metaphor: let’s say 40,000 years ago. It began when humans first started to ask themselves that perhaps most arrogant of questions: what separates us from everything else?

By any measure it was all very left-leaning, progressive discussion. Not once, thank Pan, was it suggested on either panel that global warming wasn’t real or caused by human beings. I believe communism was even mentioned without anyone in the audience getting up and leaving. From Readercon, I would have expected no less. And yet for me it didn’t go far enough. No surprise, I guess. I am a radical when it comes to this stuff. Not a revolutionary–I’m too meek and polite for that, unfortunately–but the new world order I’d create if you made me dictator…let’s just say I fear the average Readercon liberal SF fan would be plotting my assassination.

At the top of the list of things we failed to address fully are science fiction’s blind spots. Let’s be honest, despite or perhaps as a prerequisite of genre’s recent, much-boohooed explosion into mainstream culture (I was relieved, when reviewing the Readercon program, that they left off the “Did Fandom Lose By Winning” panel this year), science fiction and genre on the whole remain the purview of the white, affluent and privileged, and the thing about the white, affluent and privileged is that there’s nothing forcing them to look at the world from outside of their own experience. In my opinion genre itself ought to be doing that, but to some extent, as with the dominant narrative and global warming, there’s a positive feedback loop. You grow up in a bubble of privilege, that’s what you know to write about, that’s what your fans get to read about.

Vandana Singh touched upon this in the anthropocene panel, and I think would have gotten further into it if we’d let her. Later, in the hall outside the dealer’s room, I was telling her my line from the LCRW 33 editor’s note about how great and eye-opening it was to see all those diverse viewpoints in the submission pile, and she said (again I paraphrase), “This is what people don’t seem to understand about We Need Diverse Fiction–it’s not just about fairness or letting everyone have an equal chance, it’s about exposing people to different viewpoints.” Shall I pull out the inbred royalty metaphor? Ages ago, an innovative thinker came up with the ideas for spaceships and FTL drives, and everybody liked it so much that they kept doing it long, long after it ceased to be an innovative or even inspiring idea. The field needs new, different voices with new, different ideas, or the bloodline will thin until every novel comes out anemic.

Another related blind spot is SF’s tendency to resort to technological solutions. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Yes, development of cheaper, more efficient solar technology and next-generation battery storage and etc will doubtless help curb global warming, and we should absolutely get the hell off fossil fuels. But there are non-technological solutions already available and in use by enormous swathes of the human population of the earth–it’s just that those people don’t happen to own cars or ipads or rely on fast food for their sustenance or feel the need to water their driveways and feed their lawns better than they feed their kids. On the anthropocene panel, Gwendolyn Clare pointed out the very real threat of food shortages posed by climate change. For every degree that we warm the planet, we lose 6% of our global yield of wheat. One solution would be to let the corporations that brought us Roundup-ready corn engineer a more heat-tolerant wheat, thereby subordinating farmers even further to that corporation’s draconian intellectual property litigation. Another would be to adapt away from corporate monoculture and turn to the thousands of varieties of wheat and other grains humans have developed through conventional means over the past 9,000 years of agriculture. I’m afraid that because that’s not a technological solution, it falls squarely into the blind spot. Michael J. Daley brought up the myth of the mad scientist, the lone inventor who singlehandedly saves the world with his brilliant scientific advance. And yes, that archetype certainly speaks to SF’s penchant for the heroic. But it strikes me as rather narrow.

Something the wonderful Emily Houk said to me as the solarpunk panel was getting out: “I was wondering why nobody talked about using plants as technology.” And she’s right. Plants are a freaking amazing technology developed by mad scientist earth over billions of years. Why cast that aside? Because it doesn’t prop up the dying myth of the hero? It’s so simple: as long as there are enough plants on earth to balance out the CO2 generated by everything else, the climate stays stable. But it can also be incredibly complex. The earth’s enormous biodiversity, which we are winnowing down by the minute, includes granular solutions to a host of problems we haven’t even considered. Just one example I learned about the other day: the osage orange tree, a springy, resilient hardwood that makes giant ugly fruits like rock-hard, bitter oranges. Before European colonization its range was restricted to a small area of northeast Texas and its wood was prized by Native Americans for use in bows. In 1934, FDR’s Great Plains Shelterbelt project planted 220 million trees stretching 18,000 miles as windbreaks to combat the erosion that caused the Dust Bowl. Now they’re everywhere.

I know it’s not fiction’s responsibility to come up with these ideas or to encourage people to think differently. You’ll hear that repeatedly from some of the LCRW contributors whose interviews I’ve got lined up for the next few weeks. But there’s also nothing stopping us. There’s no reason fiction can’t be a source of inspiration for change that will make the world a better place. And if we can, why wouldn’t we want to?

In another way, this is an answer to the question of how to get readers excited, how to make them care, how to inspire them to think for themselves about these issues. For the most part I think both panels spent more time talking about the ways that didn’t work and couldn’t be done than how it could. But inspiring, surprising ideas are one of the things that got us into genre in the first place. The sense of wonder: there’ve been plenty of Readercon panels on that too over the years. Yes, the chance to see for the first time the surface of Pluto is indeed mindblowingly cool and amazing, and SF has the capacity to approximate that on the page. But I’d argue it can be just as if not more inspiring to discover a real-world solution to a real-world problem tossed away as an aside in a book about the human heart in conflict with itself.

Which of course is the other way to get readers excited, the same way you get them excited about any story, by writing brilliant, strong characters and putting them in impossible situations and showing us how they react. And here’s another way that diverse perspectives in fiction can help us. To a lot of us in the privileged affluent white first world, global warming is still an abstract problem, something that may be coming a few decades in the future. But to tons and tons of people in the world now, more every day, global warming is a real threat, a source of anger and grief and devastation, a source of real conflict, the stuff epic drama is made of. I want to see that in fiction, to teach those of us sitting here sipping lemonade in our hammocks what that feels like. I think that’s what the solarpunk advocates want too. Though I still wish they’d change the name.

To come: LCRW 33 contributor interview #1: Giselle Leeb!

Update: Hey, you didn’t even have to read my recap, because both panels are online. Though I’m glad you did anyway. Here, I made a playlist:

And hey, if you happen to be one of those people whose opinions I have horribly mangled and misused in the above, I would love to be corrected. Really.

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Jun 25 2015

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LCRW 33 Contents

lcrw33cover

It is done! And I am very happy.

fiction

Carmen Maria Machado, “I Bury Myself”
Alena McNamara, “Starling Road”
Giselle Leeb, “Ape Songs”
Michelle Vider, “For Me, Seek the Sun”
Deborah Walker, “Medea”
D. K. McCutchen, “Jellyfish Dreaming”
Sofia Samatar, “Request for an Extension on the Clarity”
M. E. Garber, “Putting Down Roots”
Eric Gregory, “The March Wind”

nonfiction

Christopher Brown, “Winter in the Feral City”
Nicole Kimberling, “Cook Like a Hobo”

poetry

Leslie Wightman, “The Sanctity of Nature”
Ingrid Steblea, “Another Afternoon in the Garden”
Kelda Crich, “Child Without Summer”
Peter Jay Shippy, “Singing Beach”

art

Kevin Huizenga
Dmitry Borshch
Steve Logan

What a mind-altering thing this has been for me. You know how, in this modern age, you look at social media and you only see what you want to see, from people you agree with, or at the most, you see stuff people you agree with are making fun of or eviscerating? Because that’s how the algorithms are designed to work, they’re these feedback loops trying as hard as they can to keep you coming back. Or maybe you look at TV, but your preferred stations and talking heads are doing basically the same thing, they’re narrowing down, they’re telling you what they want you to hear and only that. And of course, because everybody’s competing with everybody else for that privilege and for your attention, they simplify, dumb down, hyperbolize. And okay, maybe you go out into the world and interact with actual people, but disagreeing over drinks or a game of croquet just isn’t polite conversation, you don’t want to hear it from them any more than they want to hear it from you. Life as a process of polarization. It’s the virgin forest and the oil refinery and nothing in between.

Well, reading submissions for this issue has been the opposite of all that. It’s been open and organic and worldview-shakingly diverse, and it has been a balm. I feel like I’m seeing this thing, us and the world, in so much more relief and nuance than I ever was before.

I don’t know if it’ll feel the same for all of you who read it; you’re not vested in it in quite the same way; you’re not seeing yourself in it like I am. Seeing myself in the work of 250 or so writers, poets and artists, picking out the best of those, the ones that touch and cut at me and break me open. And then reading them all again, being forced by practicality and circumstance to pick out even fewer, then fewer still. And then arranging those in order, not unlike the way one arranges the scenes in a story, for all these other people to take in. What a thing.

Maybe it won’t be the same for you when you read it. But I hope it will. Because we all need that.

The issue will be out in print and ebook form in time for Readercon, at which there will with any luck be a small group reading from those contributors who happen to be in town. Later there will be a podcast episode. More about all that later. In the meantime, why not subscribe to Lady Churchill’s, get your copy and some delicious chocolate in the bargain.

A happy if belated solstice to you all.

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Aug 13 2014

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Gene Wolfe

Filed under #angry,Environmentalism,hm

All of us from that time grew up with the feeling that you shouldn’t waste anything: you don’t waste rags, because rags can be useful.

–Gene Wolfe on the Depression, from this excellent interview shared with me by Justin Howe, reader of everything. Not a new sentiment–my grandparents were living evidence of this–but a universal one. Perennial. I can only hope the kids of the next generation grow up with this inscribed on their hearts/souls/skulls. Those of the current one certainly didn’t. Lately it seems chances are high it’s going to kill us.

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Jul 15 2014

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Review: Sherwood Nation, Benjamin Parzybok

Preorder <i>Sherwood Nation</i> from Small Beer Press

In a Pacific Northwest beset by hourly more plausible, climate change induced desertification, the city of Portland struggles under strict water and power rationing, while the government and the rich glut themselves on hoarded resources. A plucky group of rebels arises to oppose them in the name of the people, annexing the poor Northeast neighborhood to create a tiny utopian state within city limits. Idealism, triumph, smashed idealism and tragedy ensue, along with a healthy share of the soulstring-resonatingly surreal.

“…You’d need a mask and a horse, obviously.”

“Mm, spurs.”

An eerie clop clop clop sounded through the open window and they looked at each other in amazement.

“A horse!” she said. “You’re a conjurer!”

But instead it was a big moose that stumbled along the dusty street, its skin tight over its ribs. Its head jerked left and right in anxious, almost animatronic movements.

“Oh no,” Renee said, “I fucking hate this. Josh saw a bear two days ago—I told you?”

They watched it continue down the street until a shot rang out. The moose’s body jerked and sidestepped strangely and then there was another shot.

“That’s a whole shit ton of extra food rations if they can store it,” Zach said as they watched men close in on it. “God knows how they’ll store it.” The moose stumbled again on a third shot but continued on.

“They’ve got to get a straight shot in.”

“I can’t watch,” Renee said. She climbed back in bed and spoke to Zach’s shirtless back as he watched the moose fall and the hunters try to drag the animal to the side of the road. “Hunters in the streets.”

“Dying of thirst has got to be worse,” Zach said.

Benjamin Parzybok’s Sherwood Nation is the sort of SF novel I’ve been waiting for someone to write, wishing I could write: a near-future utopian political adventure romp thought experiment. By page 50 I was crying and cheering. These are not common reactions for me when reading fiction; I wish they were. Now I’m waiting for someone to write the next one, while I struggle to do the same. Here’s hoping it be you.

It’s not nostalgic–no laser blasters, no spaceships with batwings and 50s car fins. It’s not escapist. No, okay, it’s escapist–dare I say all fiction is–but it escapes to something rather than from it? It’s not grimdark, where the escapism comes from reveling in hopelessness, forcing you to roll in hopelessness like a bully mashing your face in the mud so when you look up at the real world it briefly–falsely–looks less shitty. It’s realistic, it’s honest. It’s fun. It’s as fun as Parzybok’s first novel, Couch, which is saying a lot, and somehow it manages to be almost as silly even while realistic, sympathetic, human characters are making horrible decisions and getting killed. It’s full of heroic characters I can actually believe in, I can almost believe myself and the people I love capable of being like, in the right circumstances, under great pressure. And it puts those plausible heroes in a setting enough like our own that the hard solutions they find just might apply to the real world. And that is something we need. Something I don’t see SF or literary mainstream fiction or anything in between providing.

Parzybok manages to make it feel effortless, spontaneous and painstakingly well thought out at the same time.

It’s not perfect. Sometimes Sherwood Nation gets caught up in its own myth and falls into wish-fulfillment. But it’s not often. As often, we’re shown the kind of horrors a Fox News pessimist might imagine of a dictatorial/socialist utopia. And as in every other post-apocalypse setting I can think of, there’s handwaving. The question of where the water comes from, the long view of a droughted state, fades away for most of the book. But the focus is on the social and political aspects of revolution, people getting caught up in ideas, people resorting to each other in ways they don’t, can’t, in other than extraordinary circumstances. All Parzybok’s really clever ideas for surviving water shortage and living with power shortage on a citywide scale may be considered to take the place of SF wow-factor trappings in a more traditional postapocalyptic novel–I think of Bacigalupi’s spring guns and engineered elephants. They’re cool, they fit the setting, they inspire–and in so doing set the stage for the radical choices that drive the plot–they’re not the story. But unlike in Windup Girl, really unlike in anybody else’s SF I can think of, Parzybok’s wow-factor trappings are actually practicable, now, to actual beneficial result for the individual and the potential future of humanity. And for me, at least, and for us climate geeks who are the likely target audience, that plausibility does absolutely nothing to reduce the wow-factor itself.

I confess I love everything Parzybok has ever written. I know he’s not for everybody. But I’d argue Sherwood Nation is also the most accessible thing he’s written. So…if you’re anything like me…give it a try, won’t you?

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Jun 22 2012

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Urban Green Man

Urban Green Man is the both the title and intended subject matter of a forthcoming theme anthology from Edge Publishing for which I’ve been invited to submit a story. Considering all this moss that’s been creeping from my armpits and between my toes of late and the details of my living circumstances over the past couple years, you’d think this would be right up my alley, right in my hermitage, so to speak… but for some reason I’m really having a hard time at it.

The below ramblings on nature and the city are the result of an attempt at writing-avoidance aka “brainstorming” in order to figure out what the green man myth could possibly mean in an urban context and in the modern age.


Some variety of blue lobelia, best guess Lobelia kalmii, Franklin Park Wilderness, Roxbury, MA.

I used to live on Walk Hill Street in Jamaica Plain, on the south side of Boston, more or less equidistant from the Arnold Arboretum, several sprawling Civil War era cemeteries, a small Audobon nature preserve, a community garden, and Franklin Park with its public golf course and picnic facilities and the zoo. It was strange to be situated among all this relative emptiness and think of myself as being in a city. I mean, it is a city, it’s part of Boston, and I did think of it that way—though my having come there from rural Western Mass certainly colored my reaction, whereas somebody like a lifetime New Yorker would likely scoff at the notion. Being me, I quickly ran out of patience with the paved paths. Several square miles of heavily traveled, thoughtfully planned and landscaped verdant stuff weren’t enough for me. So I went where the planning had fallen by the wayside, where most people who came to these places didn’t go, where the few who did were a different sort all together, there for different reasons.

I found all the places where the drunks go to hide, where kids go to smoke weed and paint slogans on boulders. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the scenes of crimes I hesitate to name. I found an unoccupied tent-village in the overhang of a ledge on the northwest side of the Franklin Park Wilderness, then I climbed the ledge and nearly put my hand in the face of a guy sleeping off his afternoon buzz. In the little wooded trapezoid that connects the pedestrian tunnel under the 203 rotary to the Forest Hills Cemetery gate, I met a couple of homeless guys shaking the rain off their tarps in a thicket one morning when I paused to eat a raspberry or two. “Beautiful night for sleeping out,” one of them said. I thought he was kidding, what with the rain and the humidity, and it surprised me enough to learn the opposite that it didn’t even occur to me to wonder if I’d seen this guy at a stoplight holding a piece of cardboard asking for money. See what I mean? They’re there for different reasons. I tell myself I appreciate these woods more than the fat ladies out walking their yippy dogs. These guys appreciate them more than me, never mind that they’re on an island in a stream of asphalt strewn with trash older than I am, because they live there.

I wonder if Olmstead anticipated this when he was designing the Emerald Necklace. Did his understanding of the relationship between nature and human nature extend, for example, to the fact that if you put a shadowy, secluded wilderness inside a city, it will inevitably be used to conceal evil deeds? Surely he must have considered all the future generations who’d be using his parks after he was gone. What did he expect of us? Or am I making an imposition? As usual with people like Olmstead, Appleseed, Thoreau, I expect more of them than they’re capable. I stretch their legends. Maybe that makes them my personal green men.

But no, that’s just me trying to be glib. Because the green man is not a man. But we’ll come back to that.

There’s a couple of dichotomies to be addressed here in the relationship between people and nature. We can think of nature as something available to us to be used or misused, of having to make a choice between stewardship of land and exploitation. Olmstead designed the parks around the Niagra gorge; he wanted the whole area preserved in its natural state, a national park before there were national parks. He was trying to strike a balance between preserving the natural beauty and making it accessible to human visitors–humans, in theory, being the only ones capable of appreciating that natural beauty as such. What he got instead was a guarantee that the parts he had already landscaped, the manicured paths and gardens leading right along the edge of the gorge, would remain, but that pretty much everything else around, down to the blade of grass, would be leveled and replaced with motels, conference centers, fast food joints, quickie wedding chapels and casinos. Niagra was not then and has never become a city; it went from being a spectacular natural attraction in a natural setting to a spectacular natural attraction lined to the gills with concrete and exploited at both ends by industry. In the city, there’s a different dichotomy. The people and the concrete are already there. When you put in a planned park for all those people to use, you expect them to use it according to human nature, to misuse it, to get drunk and wander through it bawling, to throw their trash all over it, etc, but you try to strike a balance between making it beautiful enough to attract all those people to do those things to it and fortifying that beauty sufficiently that they don’t ruin it in the process.

It’s the tragedy of the commons: the tendency of people to exploit something unto its destruction if they’ve been told it belongs to everyone. In this case it’s literally that, because though Boston Common existed long before Olmstead, he was the one who made it what it is today, with its frog pond, baseball fields, public gardens, swan boats. There are no neglected wildernesses in Boston Common, no forgotten corner where the undergrowth has been allowed to overwhelm the lawn and hobos can go to take a peaceful nap if they aren’t interrupted by would-be rapists scouting locations. The Common is too well-used, too representative of what Boston is, for the city to allow that. Maybe Olmstead expected the same of Franklin Park, and it was just the vicissitudes of time and economics that prevented Boston from expanding to resemble New York and turned Jamaica Plain from the upscale bedroom community for rich Victorians it was into the amazing but downtrodden chaotic melting-pot it has become. On the other hand, Central Park still has neglected wildernesses, and crimes get done there. In fact, Central Park and those woods on the upper end of Manhattan wherein my big mouth got me in so much trouble with Tempest Bradford maybe make a pretty good counterexample to my theory of Boston Common and Franklin Park. Maybe there’s a continuum between how many people use a particular piece of nature and how drastically its use deviates from its designer’s utopian vision, but it’s non-linear.

Which I guess leads back to the original dichotomy, the one I brought with me to JP from Western Mass, the one I brought to Tempest’s imagined urban wild from my cushy South Suburban Boston upbringing, and in progressively diminishing form, the one I brought with me from the manicured Emerald Necklace beauty of JP to the neglected wastelands of north suburban Detroit. I am the proverbial country mouse in the city. People from the country have an utterly different understanding of, expectation of and interaction with nature than people from the city. And I am allowing for nearly infinite gradations of country and city here: Boston is not Manhattan is not Detroit is not Westwood is not Northampton is not Amherst is not the Hill Towns is not Baxter Park Wilderness is not Marquette. I’ve spoken to many city folks who can’t conceive of living outside the city, wouldn’t know what to do. And a few very deep-rooted country folks who wouldn’t even come down out of the Hill Towns to Northampton, let alone all the way to Boston. Last time I was in Western Mass, filled with joy at being among “real” wilderness again, I met an Alaskan who simply could not wait to get back to her beloved blasted tundra. And I couldn’t blame her, though she got kind of insufferable about it. Those guys sleeping out in Franklin Park in the rain—I don’t know the first thing about them—is that “real wilderness” to them? Is it privacy, home? Is it other?

This, then, is the problem. Nature is other. It’s everything that isn’t us. Which is exactly why I love it so much. Yes, yes, we’re part of nature too–but not all of it, thank god. Because I get tired of us pretty quickly. The green man, to me, is the result of an effort to give face to the faceless. He’s a personification of nature, originating back in a time when nature was a hell of a lot scarier than it is now, and it was comforting to cover that up in a smiling mask of oak leaves and make sacrifices to it once in awhile when you really wanted things to go your way. And as we progressed away from that nature, considering it more and more a thing to be exploited rather than begged mercy of, that oak-leaved face became a fun, nostalgic thing with which to decorate carved mantelpieces and pub shingles, and eventually we forgot all about the trick we’d been playing on ourselves and only saw the face.

I actually get a pseudo-religious high from being in (what I consider to be) real wilderness. I have never experienced this high in the Arboretum or Franklin Park, or on Belle Isle, Olmstead’s contribution to Detroit. I experience a palpable relief at not being surrounded by car exhaust and concrete, but it’s a long way from the sublime. That’s not Olmstead’s fault. I think partially it’s mine. Because I’m spoiled. I was born in Boston, but I only lived there a year before moving out into the trees. Maybe if my parents had stayed, let me acclimate to humanity a little better…well, I’d probably be a different person all together. But I wouldn’t be in such a pickle when it came to writing about an urban green man. Because to write this story, somehow I’m going to have to figure out how to see the sublime in the scraggly sapling growing from the brick wall of an old brownstone, in the plantain shoving up between sidewalk cracks, the graffitoed face of a boulder, the tree frogs shrieking in a cemetery. And then, somehow, I’m going to have to give that feeling a face.

Huh. You know, against all probability, I think that may actually have helped. Thanks, everybody! And happy solstice.


Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias, Lake Hibiscus, Forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plain, Boston.

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Mar 29 2012

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Sympathy for the Lorax

The other day I went to see this indie documentary, Kalamazoo River: Us, which tells the history of that river’s pollution since the frontier era and the efforts of activists to get it cleaned up. It’s a bizarre film, full of hilarity and musical numbers. The director, Matt Dunstone, was on hand to answer questions afterward: a quiet, humble guy about my age, with two young kids and a wife in academia. He made immediately clear the love and dedication and enormous heaps of painstaking work that had gone into making it.

I came away full of turmoil. Sure, it made me happy to be reminded there are people who care that much and the news isn’t all horrible. And it filled me with sympathy for those tireless activists and the frustrations they’ve suffered in the face of indifference and corporate stonewalling. I know a little of what that’s like. A tiny bit. But not enough to keep me from wondering what heartwrenching environmentalist tragedy I could have made a documentary about, or written a book, or chained myself to something in protest against, if I’d just left off banging my head against fiction.

They tell you a writer is someone who just can’t not write, and there’s truth to that. But they also tell you short fiction is dead, and they’re not entirely wrong about that either. And I didn’t have to be writing short fiction. I could have written environmentalist documentaries or journalistic research or bitter political screeds. Not that it’s impossible to send a message or win hearts to a cause with fiction, but it’s hard. And doubly hard with short fiction because nobody reads it but other writers, for most of whom it’s all they can do to glance up from their own navels at the world. Didacticism, it’s called: trying to teach people something in a medium intended to entertain. People hate it. Not everybody, certainly. I’m not one of those people. In fifth grade, not long after seeing the maligned Ferngully for the first time, I helped write and appeared in a play about the importance of protecting the rainforest. Looking back, I feel bad for the parents who had to sit through that. They were probably bored, annoyed out of their skulls. That, no doubt, was didacticism done badly. It certainly can be done well, or at least better. Swift and Voltaire have survived this long. Ayn Rand still hangs on, though she’s bored plenty of people out of their skulls. Even Dr. Seuss had his conservationist masterwork, The Lorax. But look what’s happened to it now: neatly neutered and injected full of SUV tie-ins for a new generation of the coddled oblivious. Fiction wins people over and changes minds by happy accident, not because that’s what it’s for.

Of course, I know why I chose short fiction over film. For one thing, with film you have to rely on a ton of other people to help get your final product out there. With fiction it’s just you and the page: control. The selfishness, the unwillingness to engage, the navelgazing: these things are inherent in the form. And they’re common flaws in writers. Go look at your nearest online writers discussion forum (yeah, you know the one) and see what they’re talking about, fencing their way endlessly through meaningless nitpickery week in, week out, exploding like moldy confetti the moment anything really serious comes up. Who cares? But who can blame them? If writers could be heroes, pathmakers, changers of the world, they wouldn’t be writers. Except for the rare, unspeakably lucky few who can be both.

Which I guess is why this blog post: my feeble effort to try and get there. I do what I can, I tell myself, but it’s not very much. Not compared to those activists or to Matt Dunstone. I’m too busy gazing into my own bellybutton trying to divine the universal truth. But the dream, the thing that lets me sleep at night, is the hope that of course on of these stories will be so fucking good that it makes people care, enough of them that, even though maybe I’ll never know about it, they’ll go on to chain themselves to trees and make heartwrenching documentaries.

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Nov 26 2010

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Workingman’s Gruit

Filed under Beer,Environmentalism,hm

Great with a turkey and gravy sandwich: my new Literary Beer entry is up on the Small Beer Press blog! This episode follows more of my quest to resurrect a long-dead style of beer for the modern age, using wildcrafted and homegrown herbs in place of hops, in order to save money, resources and effort, stand out from the crowd, and experience wonders never tasted by a living soul.

Just then the wind
came squalling through the door
but who can
the weather command?
Just want to have
a little peace to die
and a friend or two
I love at hand

—Hunter/Garcia, “Black Peter”

Happy thanksgiving!

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Oct 05 2010

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Ebooks

I am really excited about them. Yes, they’ve existed for a long time and they still only account for a tiny portion of the books we buy. But their numbers are growing exponentially while the rest of the industry struggles along or declines. Ereaders get more and more abundant, flashier, cheaper, and their battery life gets longer. I think they’re where the world is going.

It’s hard to shout down those who feel nostalgia for the book. Books can be beautiful. The experience of reading a physical book will never be replaced by any ereader. But it’s not like books are going away. There are books from 1450 that still exist. There are more books printed every year, using up ink, paper, cloth. Forty percent of them get pulped every year. I love books. But you know what I’d rather have? Trees.

So I have thrown in with the ebook revolution. Weightless Books, if I haven’t hyped it up to you already, is an ebook website I built and am operating together with Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press. It offers ebooks, delivered to you instantly by email, from a small but growing set of independent publishers including Small Beer Press, Featherproof Press, Blind Eye Books, Fairy Tale Review Press, and, as of today, The Homeless Moon. Yes! All three of the Homeless Moon chapbooks are now available from Weightless in a variety of formats to suit most any ereader, at the low, low price of $0.99 (and yes, they’re still available for free as well, but we’re trying to be supportive and we hope you will too).

So. Read ebooks. Consume less paper, waste less energy shipping it back and forth and then paying somebody to set it on fire when you cast it aside, read more, read better, save the world.

Thank you!

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May 31 2010

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Perspective: The Farmer in the Dell

Remarkable how much harder it is to muster the energy to blog when I don’t have lovely images lying around to fill up extra space.

You were probably starting to feel complacent and self-satisfied because I haven’t berated you about your carbon footprint lately.

Well, here I am to put an end to that.

This gulf oil spill thing is pretty depressing, no? It has put me back into that too-familiar mindset of paranoiac dread, wondering how I can wander around in my idyllic paradise taking photos of wildflowers and smugly watching the average miles per gallon meter on my fancy new cash-for-klunkers-mobile creep past 40, while out there in the world two thousand gallons of oil per hour are spilling into the Gulf.

Let’s just put that in perspective, shall we? Every year for the past 50 years, leaking oil pipeline in Nigeria has spilled more oil than the Exxon Valdez. Every year for the past 50 years. What are they (BP, Shell, etc) doing about it? Not a lot. Why? Because it’s not happening off the southern coast of the U.S.?

Meanwhile, my sister tells me, U.S. and Canadian concerns in the mountains of Guatemala strip mine for gold using blast streams of arsenic, which contaminates the water table, making it poisonous to all forms of life. And it all just flows downriver to the sea.

Then there’s the garbage patch. The 2.8 million tons of pesticides used every year worldwide. Those de-oxygenated ocean dead zones the size of New Jersey. The 3.7 billion dollar sunscreen industry (slather on, rinse off in ocean, repeat).

One starts to wonder why there’s any water in the ocean.

The only thing that’s working on our side, the only thing that keeps me lying on my back in the grass in the backyard eating soft serve with my legs up on the picnic table thinking of whimsical names for the clouds, is the fact that the earth is still, for the moment, bigger than we are.

There’s a certain little ditty that creeps up at the back of my mind at times like these and won’t go away–it helps me to remember I’m not doing enough, even when I really, really wish I could just get the damn thing out of my head. It goes like this (sung to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”):

We’re [email protected]¢king up the earth
We’re [email protected]¢king up the earth
Hi-ho the derry-o
We’re [email protected]¢king up the earth.

Everybody!

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Apr 26 2010

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That Old New Green

I fear this may get mushy. If you’re not in that treehugging mood, look away.


The Holyoke ridge, looking west from Mount Tom.

This is maybe my favorite prospect in the valley, at my favorite time of year for prospects: when I’ve had six months to forget how beautiful the leaves are, and they come forth again as though for the first time in that pale, infant color and texture soft as skin. I think it has to do with contrasts. Over my shoulder to the right is Easthampton, with its towering old brick smokestacks haunted by nesting swallows. Over the mountain’s shoulder to the left, subsided metropoli full of factories similarly moldering and grey populate a long gradient into haze: Holyoke, Springfield, Hartford, New Haven. Behind me, the summit of Mount Tom, with its ruined Victorian hotel now surmounted by buzzing icicle cellular towers, satellite dishes and wry suicidal graffiti. But right here in front of me is this rippling swath of pastel-green, unpopulated nothing. What’s it doing there, looking like it just erupted from the fingertips of god? What right has it to go unlogged, undeveloped, undecayed?

Unlike pretty much every other place in this valley, I’ve never really had the chance to explore this particular nothing. Maybe that contributes to the mystery. Maybe I never will explore it, just so I can get this same feeling again every spring.

On the way back down across the sandy cut where the hotel’s telephone wires used to run, I ran into a Northern Oriole female–nothing special for most of you people maybe, but for some reason around here I rarely see them. I didn’t take a picture; there’s times when it just isn’t called for. But I crept up to within a few feet and we chirped back and forth at each other for awhile, heads cocked and frozen still. Then I thanked her and went on my way.

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