Monthly Archives: November 2015

Conservation of Nature is a Lie We Tell Ourselves to Atone for the Sins of History

Let us be clear on one point: Nature is impossible to conserve in some fabled or mythical state of pre-human or pre-Western influence. I do not say this to destroy or argue against state parks and conservation efforts. I say this because we need to address what it is we are actually trying to do, and to realize how it impacts the environments we are supposedly trying to preserve.

First, there is no pure state. Wild American Buffalo no longer exist in the wild. They were eradicated by white hunters on one front, and interbred with cattle on another front, creating a new creature in the wild that is referred to by conservationists and ranchers as either Bison or Beefalo. The wild buffalo that were preserved by private conservationists are currently being resettled out to a new range in Montana in land where park rangers are busy eradicating non-native plant species and evidence of human habitation. (source: Mother Jones) Now, this state is attempting to go back to pre-Western ranges, except it is, at best, a theme park of conservation. After the human habitations are cleared away, and the non-native species are stripped off, and the buffalo are permitted to roam, the “natural” aspect of the park will be artificially created. And, nature does not hold still. Voids are filled. Niches are created, exploited, and lost. The climate has changed so much since the wild herds of buffalo across the plains, and human hunters will not be permitted to drive whole herds into arroyos for ease of slaughter. What natural state is that, then?

Who decides what is natural? It is a political statement. Nature already has made hers: Bison. The interbreeding of cow and buffalo is what nature chose. The fading boundary between grizzly bear and polar bear is what was chosen by nature. The “coydog” and “coywolf” are what nature chose. The explosion of life from invasive species, again, what the natural system chose as a response to the stimuli provided. To let things truly be “natural” we have to stop doing a lot of the things we consider to be conservation.

What is conservation, anyway? I am proud to say that I love the idea of the buffalo reserve, and would love to support it. But, I recognize that it is more about human guilt and atoning for the guilt than it is about the buffalo who happily interbreed with cattle and continue to roam in our wild places, today. We murdered an entire species, that was a pinnacle and apex species of an ecosystem that is mostly lost, and we have an opportunity to bring back that system, and to set up a preserve for all the survivors of colonialist policies of land management. I think that’s a great idea. But, it is, also, a product of Western ideas of land management. State parks are not natural landscapes. They are cultivated to preserve an idea of what that landscape is supposed to be. It is a designed space, with trails cut into the sides of hills, trash cans and restrooms, and signs posted to point out the features I am supposed to be seeing.

Nature has already decided what she wants to do, and is constantly deciding.

The future of all of these spaces will change as species diverge, cross, eat, breed, die. None of the spaces we hope to conserve will remain static, unless we act upon them to hold them in place. (We call our impact on the state park an attempt to create a natural landscape!) The ground, itself, will shift in the foot paths and root zones of species. Rivers do not flow on a stable path; rather, they ramble over the land left and right, or dig down deeper into it and deeper into it and deeper and deeper into it.

Ergo, we are conserving away our guilt. We are creating parks and reserves to the landscapes and species and land formations that we feel terrible about destroying. We find beautiful places and hold them still, and hope to God it saves them. It’s a noble thing, but nature is indifferent to your nobility. There is no honor in the jungle, only change. Always change. Transformation, metamorphosis, life and more like and different kinds of life. We are a part of the process of transformation, even as we attempt to create a space where our influence is removed. There is no non-human landscape, only landscapes that exist in the myths of our guilt and landscapes that can be exploited by the needs of the man.

There is no conservation. Nature does not require our conservation. Nature will be fine, with or without our presence on this earth.

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The World Does Not Exist To Be Your Redemptive Narrative

Novels about European and American men of means traversing landscapes foreign and surreal are an opportunity to explore the world with a familiar narrative lens, reducing the sense of alienation and strangeness that can be a barrier of entry to many who need explanations about what is happening in foreign lands. The narrator, also requiring explanation, can turn to someone and ask them what is going on. The culture does not need this information, and would merely continue operating under a context and subtext that may be too alien to Western audiences to be anything but a distraction to readers who struggle with suspension of disbelief, sometimes. Ergo, there is a value in these narratives.

I am thinking of books like Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, in which a terrible human being, believed to be a spoof of Ernest Hemingway-esque white saviors, traverses Africa causing damage and brushing up against genuine danger all the while grappling with his own failure to see what is before him, for the narrator probably doesn’t transcend the racism that came with him on the plane from America. He is a boorish, drunken buffoon wrapped in his own sense of greatness. The book spares him no glory along his path of destruction and failure in Africa. In its time, the book divided critics. It is a beautifully-written, metaphysical exploration of a troubled, difficult man. On the other hand, it is a bit racist, no?

Africa, in the book, seems populated by amalgamations of many stereotypes of what white men in the sixties probably perceived Africa to be. A people of noble savages are simply too noble to kill the frogs that poison the water supply that deny their cattle. The pidgen and depiction of ignorant savages grates in an era when our failure to humanize Africa, as a continent covered in diverse peoples and cultures all with varying hopes, dreams, desires, desperations, far beyond whatever nonsense is depicted in the Nobel-prize winning comic masterpiece.

It still divides. Sometimes, I think it is a brilliant metaphysical book that is wrapped so tightly into the narrator’s failure to see what is in front of his face, that it has to be a masterpiece about rich, white, boorish, racist Americans finding themself on Safari. Sometimes, I am haunted by the gaze of the narrator, describing the peoples of Africa as if they were alien species behind seemingly human eyes.

Recently, I read Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, widely considered one of the best novels written in the English language. It probably is an excellent novel, but it is hard to read in Texas. I’m about two or three hours from the Mexican border, down here, at the moment. I don’t just see a whole bunch of strange, different peoples, speaking in a thick accent, if at all, and operating as a kind of purgatory setpiece for the struggling alcoholic’s delusions and colonial excess. Instead, I am more interested in the tavern keeper whose son is called the son of the elephant, and the supposed bank thief, and the political maelstrom that rides underneath with the police officer’s strike. I want to know the story of everyone except the one person the book is truly about.

It is a beautiful, sweeping masterpiece of prose crippled by the period that produced it, when stories about foreign countries could only exist as great works of art if a white man walked among its pages, where the landscape reflects the soul of the hero on some metaphysical, tragicomic romp.

These narratives are not, necessarily, unworthy of reading. In fact, the great danger of them is how superior the craft of fiction is inside of them. They are marvelous, beautiful novels that have, at their heart, something pustrous and festrule and ignominositously skronk. What do we do with these great books of a former age? I read, and I study them, and I wonder what I am to do with this book in the days to come? We cannot just relegate some of the great books of a century to a dustbin because they carry the racism of their own time and place hidden, unintentionally, in the margins of the text. The books both certainly try to do right by their adopted continents. There is a genuine effort by the authors to let the communities be vibrant and alive and true to themselves as more than what the narrator sees in them. Yet, the landscape exists so that white men can have their souls reflected in them.

It is a narrative trope, done well, that leads to such films as Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, that is guilty of the same even while it tries very hard to feature Indian characters in lead roles, and to portray a story of cross-cultural dialog that meets everyone in the middle, who is able. Still, one can’t help but grimace at the thick accents, the lingering lens of a camera drinking in exoticism, and the depiction of Indians as present for white redemption that is only barely their own. See the picture of the film’s poster above? Notice how none of the Indian actors are portrayed upon it.

This is also the story of Heart of Darkness, wherein a white man journeys up the river to the white man who became the savior of a savage race and place. It is hard to fault the trope when it has produced major and enjoyable works of art. The outsider comes to town, so to speak, from a different culture and tradition from the one the intended audience knows is a capable vehicle of much great potential. It is also the story of so many terrible and offensive works of film and fiction: these noble savages who need their white savior, these inferior, ignorant others who are unknowable and inscrutable to the white man. How unsurprising and fitting that the Vietnam War would become the backdrop for the great film version of this classic, where the futility of the white savior narrative truly came to the front of white consciousness. We lost that war. We lost so much trying to be saviors of people we dehumanized doubly as both a racial slur and Commies!

I don’t know what to make of the concept, honestly. It is harder and harder to write, when the seams of racism show at all the edges even under the best of circumstances and skillsets. It is such a product of a time when Africa and Mexico and Australia and all the corners of the earth had no voices of their own permitted to speak to the world as an equal, and it continues on in narratives and political narratives today, where the white savior arrives to push around the ignorant, the stolid, the stupid, and the stuck.It is also the way that readers who have those predispositions can actually encounter new cultures (when done well and justly) that would otherwise not enter their imaginary spaces. Hopefully, that will provide some instigation towards a wider exploration and acceptance of new cultures and communities of humans.

1947 gave birth to the novel, Under the Volcano, about central Mexico. By 1960, an explosion of Central and South American writers would propel onto the world stage, reaching readers who would probably be unable to pinpoint the various nations from which these authors derived on a map except to point at a huge landmass somewhere south of Texas. Was Lowry’s volcano part of that coming flood? Did he pave the way in the imagination of readers and reviewers and writers, along with other white authors of all those lesser adventures, for the mental landscape that would become, among other places, Garcia Marquez’ brilliant and dazzling and luminous Macondo? Is this the true trajectory of intellectual colonization? First, the stories are about the white men that visit the place. Second, the stories are about the white men who fail and are defeated by their lack of understanding of a place. Third, the place speaks back, and tells her own stories about what happened when the white man came. Finally, Macondo exists apart from all places and times, a community so deep in the jungle of Colombia, that it carries all the imaginations of the world into a whole new way of thinking about reality, art, the imagination, and the trajectory of souls.

More research and reading is necessary for the final wild assertion. Leave thoughts in the comments, because I’d love to hear them on this topic.

 

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Awards Eligibility

So, this time of year people post what stories and fictions they wrote that are eligible for awards this year. I believe there are only two from me, this year, currently eligible.

My short story “Paul and his Son” was in Asimov’s April/May 2015 edition.
My short story “Everything is Haunted” was in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet June 2015.

It’s been a crowded year in short fiction, with lots of great stories, so I doubt this is more than just a tallying for my own, personal records, but…

There it is, for those who are interested.

I expect to have a more exciting year ahead, beginning with a short story called “Farmers” in the January/February issue of Analog Magazine!

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After Birdman

We watched Birdman, and the film is excellent, and seemed to me to be a good selection for all the accolades it received, and Michael Keaton’s performance was powerful in such a technically challenging and demanding role. After the film, we observed the behind-the-scenes featurette, to see the long, sweeping camera shots that follow the actors around the meticulously orchestrated hallways. It looked like a technically challenging film for all members of cast and crew, when we were watching it. Seeing the footage behind the scenes only increased the level of difficulty that the filmmaker’s vision demanded. Michael Keaton’s presence at the heart of the film is a testament to his ability and skill as a commanding actor, capable of wide-ranging emotional deliveries that turn swiftly in scenes with moments and glances.

After the film, we talked about other actors that could have pulled off that role. Oddly, the names we returned to, Denzel Washington, Raul Julia (R.I.P.), even Cate Blanchett, were not white men. We talked about what would change if the ethnicity of the lead changed, for example. It would lose realism, because a movie about Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 90s is primarily a movie about white men. It’s hard to imagine an Indian actor in the role, for example, though many of the largest-grossing box office stars of action films are in India. The play within the film is based on a short story by a white, male author – Raymond Carver. It is about a white, American suburb, and things that are left unsaid there. Imagining a film with Raul Julia, for example, would also add an overtone of overcoming the accent, transcending it, and being more than just the one person of that ethnicity permitted to be a star in Hollywood – the way that Hollywood will have one actor of an ethnicity that is “bankable” and delimit their narratives to films exploring that ethnicity. The demons that haunt the heads of Latino actors must include the idea that they will be considered for Latino roles, only, and there is a limited number of them permitted in each film or series. African-American actors would also wrestle with the demon of prejudice. In one iconic scene, Michael Keaton is locked out of his own theatre just before the climax, and he must walk around the back of the theatre, through crowded streets, wearing nothing but his underpants. Imagining Denzel in this scene carries the specter of threat that is far beyond Michael Keaton’s intensity. An African-American making that same desperate walk through crowded New York streets would be grappling with the darkness of his body, and the danger of being black and vulnerable in a crowded street, where Keaton’s walk is comedic and sad, and mortifies his flesh in the name of art.

It is a wonderful film, and it would feel slightly less authentically Hollywood if it included any people of color. It even mentions, in the film, that theatre is an art for a few hundred old, rich, white people, with a tastemaker that is a bitter, old, white woman, while Hollywood is for all the people of the world. Though, really, it is not. There is Bollywood, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Nigeria, South Africa, and all the different offshoots and variations happening all over the world. I would love to see this film completely remade in Bollywood, adjusted to their traditions and modes. I would love to see the film remade as an Anime, about an anime director that leaves the art for the traditional live theatre of Japan. The powerful film feels constrained by the quiet racial prejudices of the world it is presenting in verite, and is missing all the layers that would come from a masterful lead actor of a different ethnicity.

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Bookstore Etiquette Tips

Seeing as independent bookstores are slowly fading from general civilization as anything but novelties in most cities, and an eclectic, antidiluvian novelty, at that, I have grown suspicious that most citizens of America have forgotten how to behave in bookstores. I have ample evidence to suggest that attending a retail establishment of books in the digital age has created conundrums of etiquette.

First, the purpose of the WiFi is not to provide you a space to hang out endlessly, surfing the web. If you need the internet to entertain you in a bookstore, reconsider your life choices. The WiFi exists for one reason, only. The staff and you occasionally need to look things up in order to locate a book. That’s it. Sitting around in a bookstore on the WiFi, while surrounded by perfectly good, lovely, tangible books is a ridiculous failure on the part of the web-surfer. Get off the internet. This is not the place to be lonely in public. This is a place of communion with the great minds and writers of history. Go sit in a bar and drink at your computer, if you must, or turn to the ubiquitous coffee shop that remains unattached to a bookstore. There, you can be alone in public on a computer for hours and hours. Do buy something at least once an hour, too. It’s only polite.

Second, bookstores are not libraries. The level of quiet required in libraries is not necessary in bookstores. Certainly, polite tones of voice are appreciated, but talking about books is supposed to happen in bookstores. Talk, and talk merrily. Bookstores are places where souls are bared, washed, and rendered clean as sans serif black on perfect white paper. No running, and no shouting, but talking? Yes, talk. Of course, talk. How else is the staff going to entertain themselves if they cannot eavesdrop on your conversations!

Third, talking is not extended to the usage of cellphones. Bookstores are a waystation in the digital age. Do take your cellphones outside the store. Leave behind unpurchased merchandise, and step outside. Do not make calls or receive calls while in line to be served by the staff of the bookstore. Remember, people at bookstores are not your servants. They are often dangerous artists, capable of unspeakable acts of poetry, painting, and erudition. They can, and will, remember who harms them. They will remember who is disrespectful. They will never forget.

Fourth, If one does not find the book desired on the shelf, and one desires to place an order with the store for the book, this is a contract sealed in blood. You do not welch on it. You will return and purchase this book. Sorry, but once you’ve placed the order, you have signed a verbal contract to return for the book. If you know that you are forgetful, create a reminder for yourself so that you don’t have to count on bookstores following up to return and seek out the book, again. It is very important to return for the book.

Fifth, on the drinking and eating of food: Even if such things are permitted in the store, remember that you are in a hallowed, holy place. Keep the lids covered with spill-proof caps. Keep the food thoroughly napkin-ed and clean. If there are animals in the store, do not feed them for often animals do not thrive on the food of humans. If there are bookstore employees eyeing hungrily, it is appropriate to offer to share. Alas, bookstores do not pay very well, and sometimes employees are very hungry. It is polite to offer to share with the staff, if you have enough and it is delicious. Think of all the book signings and events where food is placed out for you, fair reader!

Sixth, if you are incapable of putting a book back in its proper place, do not merely put it down anywhere. Take it back to the front and hand it to an employee and explain that you forgot where it came from. They will be happy to reshelve it for you.

Seventh, leaving trash and mess in the store is bad. How would you feel if someone came into your home and left a bunch of junk and empty cups on your precious shelves of books? There are trash cans available, I assure you, and the staff is happy to help you to use them.

Ergo, let us review what rudeness is. Camping out with a bunch of food in open containers and messiness while surfing the store WiFi for hours without purchasing anything, making loud phone calls, and leaving books strewn about the place in stacks and wrong places and special ordering something that you have no intention of picking up is all bad. What do you think this is, Barnes & Noble?

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