absence and presence

Writing is always about absence. To practice it you must absent yourself from immediate experience, and what you write is always a memory or a prediction of the experiences from which you are absent, otherwise you would have nothing to say but “I sit here typing…” The practice of most other arts is its own kind of present experience, but writing is uniquely mental, solitary and abstract.

And imagination may be a wonderful thing, but it is not as wonderful as the Real World Out There, the one we have to abandon and despise in order to live inside our own minds.

As another irreplaceable day, unique in all of endless time, with its unrepeatable configuration of birds, clouds and winds, its dense totality of living entities in this incomparably life-filled sphere, whose  collective actions will never again take the exact shape or have the exact same participants they had today – passes away, and i have shut myself inside again where so little changes, and so little is alive by comparison, i mourn a life i’ve never known, the impossible life of a self-conscious being who could move in that plenitude as an ecstatic participant, in any locality – not even for a whole life, just, possibly, for one whole day. Who could naturally feel (without chants or hallucinogens, without coercion of any kind) in relationship with that totality of the living non-human, absorbed in it, almost utterly meaningless to it, and yet safe: neither predator nor prey, just praise-animal. A tiny part of the dance in that place, that time only – but fully part.

Why does human life seem instead like a pin-hole of light in the grim shutter of a dark-lantern? We made those shutters, no one else. We turned it all inside out, by coming to tortured consciousness only of the temporal vastness of “I am not,” and fearing and hating that understanding, instead of realizing the baroque and inexhaustible variety (age doth not wither nor custom stale etc.) of the time we are, and learning to immerse ourselves in it, even with so few turns round the sun in order to do so. Collectively, we go on trying to de-complexify everything until it is either boring or dreadful, now in our shoddy automaton world that doesn’t even work well for most, that never gives even the  privileged more than a momentary illusion of control – when all around us, and inside us too, was a breathing, palpitating, circulating body of such inexhaustible abundance of forms.

Yes, from before the beginning of our self-consciousness, we had to kill and eat living things, and kill or flee anything we feared would eat us. Was there nothing more we could do with that primal understanding than to become what we have become? I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if a photosynthesizing creature had developed self-awareness.

I suppose when we give up on presence, and disappear into the imagination, we can at least fill the world with interesting phantoms.

 

fire and rain

This essay first appeared on the CounterPunch and Dissident Voice webzines.

Run to the trees
Trees will be burning
Run to the sea
Sea will boiling
All on that day

So, summer, the frivolous season of our supposed repose, now brings dread, east and west, north and south. As summer peaks in the west, everything dries and dies, and as the suffocating heat grows inland and the dry grass whispers we start watching the skies fearfully for lightning, and we wait for the news that actually it wasn’t lightning; it was a tossed cigarette, a forgotten campfire, some guys shooting rifles, a firebug with a can of gasoline. And then the sight of the firestorm on the jagged horizon, moving faster than anything that doesn’t fly, the flames joining together in an impossible roaring uprush that feeds on itself, that grows like a living thing, and the trees light up like great torches, the pain of whose immolation we cannot feel because thanks to the scientific worldview we know trees have no brains and no nerve endings and thus don’t feel pain anyway. They are just matter, burning.

Of course, coming from a species that has set alight its own members, with their highly developed nervous systems, when it seemed politically necessary, this suggests that even if we did think individual trees felt pain we wouldn’t necessarily care if we needed other things more than large numbers of trees, which we clearly do, because we, collectively, are watching them go up in flames on a grander scale every year without making much of a peep about it, and the trashed trophy homes and cars scattered back in there are all we can really mourn for, the only things that have a compelling reality for us. Forests grow back, right?

Except when they don’t, because some invisible calculus has determined that the underlying conditions which made their existence possible are gone. We may not be there yet for what’s left of the great boreal forests, but we won’t actually know when the threshold is crossed – invisible means just that. Chaos theory means just that. Biologists have identified a phenomenon in complex living systems called “critical slowing down” whereby those systems become gradually less resilient in the face of repeated onslaught until some non-trivial boundary is crossed and they collapse. Where is the line, exactly? Well, the scientists tell us with marvelous equanimity, that’s precisely the puzzle. Hard to say…

We of the bourgeoisie rise momentarily from our stupor when fascists begin to stir in the shallows of our societal swamp, ironically more like some monstrous presence out of an H.P. Lovecraft story than the racist, miscegenated, fever-dream monsters Lovecraft actually gave us. We’ll even take the kids out for an afternoon to send those fascists back “where they came from,” which is the same place we come from, so good luck with that. But when the distant forests burn in their hundreds of millions of acres over the longer, hotter, drier summers, we barely so much as sigh – what good would marching in the streets do?

Whether we can see it or not, the inanimate (to us) forests have been set alight by the lineaments of our gratified desire: cars, roads, houses, electronic devices, cosmetic surgery, food from everywhere. Thanks, capital! Thanks, science! No more hands and backs into the hard labor of pulling sustenance from the soil or forging steel or tending gigantic machines – our livelihoods are gained now by our dancing fingertips alone! Who will be the first bourgeois to blow up that bargain? Who will be the first of the expendable classes not to seek it? And at least we are compensated by the quality of the sunsets – what beauty there is in annihilation really! It’s as if we told ourselves, well, all those tiki torches sure did make for a pretty procession!

Those who can’t turn their attention to other distant horrors or daily cares will then have to listen to the insane barking of politicians who blame tree-loving enviros for preventing responsible forest-destruction that would, according to those wise men of capital, make these fires of growing intensity, scale and frequency somewhat less damaging. Never mind the climatic elephant in the ideological room, that’s a non-starter with men whose fanatical devotion to the profit system can be diminished by no preponderance of evidence. Why bother to argue, even shoving the elephant aside for a second, that massive thinning and brush clearing further dries out the forests and impoverishes their soils, making them even more susceptible to catastrophic burning, or that “responsible logging” is an oxymoron when you throw in economies of scale? Why argue that the vast, safe, checkerboard tree plantations of the coastal Northwest are no more forests anyway than Nebraska’s wheat fields are prairies? Not even apples and oranges, it’s apples and ball bearings. There is no basis for a discussion because there is no shared conceptual framework. That living systems have any right to exist apart from our usage of them is inconceivable within capitalist (or socialist, frankly) doxa.

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total eclipse

This essay first appeared on the CounterPunch and Dissident Voice webzines.

The ultimate representation of the primitive, of what the civilized call the dark ages of prehistory, is the image of tribal people cowering in fear and abasement at a reoccurring and entirely predictable phenomenon of the “clockwork universe,” the eclipse of the sun. Even civilizations with some form of recorded history but limited application of the scientific method are denigrated for their tendency to attribute this phenomenon to a sentient being. Creating a class of priests whose job it was to pretend they were capable of negotiating with the celestial entity generating this mystery was social hucksterism of the worst kind, no better than a carnival barker’s or a confidence man’s. Worse, in fact, because the whole class sustained itself on these falsehoods not at the margins but at the center of those societies, for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years.

All well and true, perhaps… The science of eclipses is beautiful in and of itself, a dance of geometrical objects in four-dimensional space-time. But eclipses are a far more complex phenomenon than any simple clockwork analogy can comprise. The nature of the sun, for all the force of observation and analysis brought to it since the emergence of the scientific method, is still mysterious, and many scientists readily admit this. They chase eclipses to pursue that mystery, perhaps with the hope of eliminating it. At the same time one senses in many of those who have written of the phenomenon an unspoken love for the mystery itself. The beauty of something humans didn’t create, and can’t fully recreate at any scale, and yet which shows a mastery of the logic we (well, some, anyway) have discovered in nature and learned to apply with a degree of skill.

But there is another side to the perception of nature as an actively sentient force, and you could say it is in eclipse now, and we are not necessarily better off for it. That is a recognition of humility. A profound understanding that these forces are supremely determinative, at least compared to us. We may talk and talk and talk of freedom, and freedom has meaning when we oppose it to the social oppression we create in our own species, but still we are not “free” to alter one millimeter of the path of the moon’s shadow as it races across the earth.

Although, I suppose we might begin to imagine such power – I mean, I suppose we are technically capable of destroying the moon someday. Would that be a demonstration of our freedom? If some geoengineering eco-modernist convinced the world’s elites that destroying the moon (or just eliminating half its surface, say) was needed to reduce tidal surges from a rising ocean, and thus protect real estate values, would the rest of us “free” humans have any choice but to watch the sky on the announced night and marvel at the great power that humanity’s possession of the scientific method has given (some of) us, as we blew that once-living deity to smithereens?

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on the lost coast circuit

 

van in the pines

This tale was first published in the e-anthology Things You Can Create.

The Lost Coast circuit was nearly a hundred miles long north to south, but Jake and Ella had come directly over the inner ranges from the limited-way, cutting their usual route in half. Low on supplies, with fewer places to get them each time they came through. So they headed for the river crossing a mile or so in from the coast, where there was a swap-mart by a cable-ferry. It drew trade from the hemp colony, the only one left on that circuit. From the narrow valleys around, settlers came trading hides, honey, or milled timber for smoke, paper, rope and oil.

Jake had his whetstone to sharpen and tools to repair any knife or blade. Ella could sing; she specialized in classical tunes, much favored then as now. Jake played a mouth-harp well enough to back her up, but her voice was the main draw.

Last time they’d done all right in trade: plus supplies, even negotiated some hard-to-find things for their skills. A metal belt-buckle for Jake that could still shine up. Ella got a lucky charm, a jolly red-haired clown of plastic, pocket-sized, improved by some hand with new paint.

But this time there wasn’t a soul on the beaten-dirt plaza above the ferry launch, near the pylons of the was-bridge, or anywhere else they looked. Only rags of mist floating up the river channel, wind whispering in the tall brown grass, and the dark pines sighing to themselves on the hills.

There was a single, roofless shelter at the edge of the plaza; Jake couldn’t remember it from before. Ella stayed close to the van as he unsheathed his knife and pushed open the only door. It shrieked on its dry wooden hinge; she bit her lip as he disappeared inside. And waited, singing softly to herself, Number one is the lowliest number

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remaining animal

This essay first appeared on the CounterPunch and Dissident Voice webzines.

The philosopher David Abram wrote a book called Becoming Animal (2011), which was, in part, an exploration of shamanism and an attempt to understand what that means from outside a culture in which that term and practice are still central to human life.

What he found was that our fascination with what we call magic in Western civilization is utterly rooted in the mysterious (to us) transformations that take place in quotidian fashion in the living world. He described how our perceptual and cognitive apparatus hinder us from knowing that world intimately, as full participants, and yet give us a unique window on those transformations: imagination.

In the wake of a first-ever mass march to defend and elevate the scientific method, the most transformative legacy of the fading Enlightenment, it seems worth remembering that the person held up in the contemporary world as the epitome of the Man of Science told us that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

He made a lot of other pithy statements too, some of them about socialism, also an Enlightenment project whose rationalism has underscored the depth of our irrationality, and whose implementations have shown the inadequacy of mechanistic models to do justice to human existence in a dynamically complex living world.

If we still recounted our history in mythic terms, Einstein would be a highly ironic progenitor god or hero: he believed that the whole universe was governed by rationally intelligible laws, but his theories produced a model of nature that is radically discontinuous and breaks down when we attempt to unify it. He believed in the peaceful coexistence of peoples – and gave us the most viable means we have had to annihilate ourselves through organized violence since there were less than a hundred of us shambling across the savannah, occasionally clubbing one another to death.

His equations give us transformations that appear magical too: mass becomes energy, light becomes time, time becomes space. But where do we humans live in that world, which looks nothing like our own? It is a world in which our life – or any life – is a kind of freakish little side show, and elegant mathematical equations are the sine qua non. Einstein did not overthrow Newton’s clockwork universe; he gave its clocks a Dalian ability to melt and morph and finally vanish, but in that timeless universe experienced by a beam of light, there is no life, no possibility of biology at all.

Such a faith in the universal primacy of reason now seems increasingly desperate, considering the unintended consequences. Without emerging from the nuclear shadow, the new millennium has deepened its dystopian shades ever since its first regressive year: when those two great pillars symbolizing its triumphant mercantile economic system were toppled in minutes (an image straight out of the Major Arcana) by men wielding the crudest of weapons. And the empire began the historically inevitable and endlessly vitiating process of striking back. As a counterweight to these times, I recently picked up David Jennings’ book Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism (2016), about the wave of utopian social experiments that swept the nascent U.S. beginning in the late 18th century, another age of apocalyptic fervor in the West.

I was struck by those contradictory creatures, the Shakers, who hated and feared our animal nature, epitomized in sexual congress, and yet believed passionately in gender equality, communalism, pacifism and good craftsmanship. Besides producing the furniture and structures for which they are still famous, they also became expert seed breeders, elevating the power of sexual reproduction in plants even as they despised it in humans. Their experiment was ultimately self-limiting: it was driven by end-times fever, but the world did not end, not even after the culminating slaughter of the Civil War. Jennings quotes a later commentator of Marx (who was critical of utopian socialism) to this effect: the 18th and 19th century millenarians “mistook ‘the birth pangs of capitalism for its demise,’” and misread industrialism’s ravages of landscapes and social norms as signs that the establishment of the New Jerusalem was nigh.

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the door

This is the story arc of our species: we have traveled, although with many meanderings, a single traceable path from wild to domesticated to mechanized beings. We still carry our past with us – sometimes it is expressed, sometimes only potential, but it is not entirely (never, thus far, entirely) lost; it is embodied in us. So there are still groups of human beings who have more wilderness in them, many more who are fully domesticated but not (yet) mechanized, and some – in fact, considered the most privileged in contemporary civilization – who are being positioned for, and now, like good domesticated creatures, actually trotting faithfully towards, machine-life. Clutching essential contrivances to which they have outsourced their memory, sociability, wealth, intellect, and imagination. The next step on this path is to further incorporate (embody) our machines: first to wear them, then to implant them, and finally to become them.

Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks made me realize children are the throwbacks. Domesticated children held the wild in them, released when they went outside to play; machine children will probably still hold the domestic, creating farms and households and schools on their virtual reality playgrounds. All children have held the body, the physical, preeminent – a physicality in constant motion, irreducible because it is alive at all levels, seen and unseen. What adults abstract to a separate and imaginary realm, the metaphysical, is merely a single reality that is alive throughout. This is the world of children.

It was the children who perceived, as Macfarlane says, doors everywhere in the landscape, the children who could slip between worlds without difficulty, just as they can speak in different languages without interposing translation, or express paradoxical ideas without a sense of contradiction.

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reassurance and empire: a litany for january 20, 2017

I am not reassured by the idea that life might have been different.

I am not reassured by the idea that life is exactly as it should be.

I am not reassured by human imagination and creativity.

I am definitely not reassured by human adaptability.

I am not reassured by the solidity of the built environment.

I am not reassured by loyal animal companions.

I am not reassured by the vulnerability of children.

I am not reassured by algorithms.

I am not reassured by the idea of individual or collective agency.

I am not reassured by the fact that I am healthy, fed and clothed.

I am not reassured by the idea that everything will go on without me.

I am not reassured by the meaninglessness of the individual or the species in the great scheme of things.

I am not reassured that we have made it this far.

In the swirl of clouds sweeping off the ocean, and the smatter of rain from the oncoming squall, i saw how active and many were the birds in the untended wall of flowering broom growing beside the concrete stair. I would have called them happy, if i dared. Let us just say lively. I watched them till they dispersed, and then looked far out to the slice of cliff-bound shore i could see from there, and the ocean waves in motion at its base, white and tremendous, though they were miles away on the other side of the Golden Gate.

Then i started back. And just as i turned the corner of an empty street, there was the rainbow, vaulting over all i could see. I laughed out loud at the aleatory kitsch, knowing it wasn’t there for me, or for anyone, at this moment or any moment, knowing its shimmering indifference was precisely its monumental promise, was the only message human beings were meant to read in it, that we lived in a world that made such things for itself, and would ever as long as there was air, water, and light in it – and so to love it, as it was, love a world of such marvels that exists without love or hate for us, and yet is us, all we are and (i hope) will ever be. The house we have not built has no love or hate for us either, but in it we live. But of course, we are constantly tearing down well-built houses and trying to build better ones. I withdraw the analogy.

This rainbow shone on and on, its colors at the base fat and glossy beyond any i could remember seeing anywhere for years. It spanned the city that tried to take those colors down from the sky and brand itself with them forty years ago, making me laugh harder, if somewhat bitterly. With no one else in sight, i felt dared to succumb to pathetic fallacy by something that seemed like a great, clownish wink.

I was not exactly reassured by the rainbow, though i loved it, and it made me laugh. I was reassured by the rain-filled wind in my face as i walked, the tangled complexity of a tiny patch of soil at my feet at the top of the stair, and that tumult of bright, dark and singing birds. I was reassured by the momentary feeling of being immersed at every point of my being in a shared medium with them, and even though some day it would dim and die for me, everything i was would remain in intimate participation in that medium, without even the illusion of isolation anymore, unconcerned forever by its unconcern.

a massacre in the rear view mirror: el mozote at 35

This essay first appeared on the the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

In three days, from December 11-13, 1981, U.S.-trained troops in Central America’s smallest, most densely populated republic, El Salvador, rounded up and killed over a thousand unarmed civilians in the hamlet of El Mozote, in Morazán province, near the Honduran border. This massacre, I believe, still has the dubious distinction of being the largest mass killing of civilians by state forces in the Western Hemisphere in the 20th century.

Most people who know anything about the Central American civil wars in the last decades of the Cold War know that they were U.S. proxy wars, the Reagan Administration’s “line in the palms” against Soviet expansion. In Weakness and Deceit, then New York Times foreign correspondent Raymond Bonner carefully exposed the bloody fingerprints of the administration on that massacre and the years-long cover-up that followed, and was exiled from the paper for his pains.

El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war ended in a negotiated settlement, after displacing a fifth of the country’s population of five million and killing over 75,000. And after billions of U.S. tax dollars were poured in to prop up its army and political class by Carter, Reagan and Bush – El Salvador was at one time the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel and Egypt. The war was followed by fifteen years of right-wing dominated plutocratic governments that institutionalized denial, and pushed through a craven amnesty for all military and political figures implicated in war crimes, while they continued (a little more discreetly than before) looting the country. A few triggermen were prosecuted for death squad activities but by and large, the major perps walked free, some of them settling comfortably in the U.S. A lot of other Salvadorans ended up in the U.S. as well, but the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service worked diligently to ensure that none of those who had fled government repression were given political asylum.

El Salvador’s guerrilla army, the FMLN, had taken swifter, if limited, justice: in 1984, they lured the massacre’s engineer and top commander Colonel Domingo Monterrosa into a booby-trapped helicopter by letting him think he had captured the transmitter for the guerrilla radio station, Radio Venceremos. They blew him up in mid-air. A pretty good film, Trap for a Cat, made by a Venezuelan filmmaker sympathetic to the struggle tells this as a story of poetic justice, with some dramatic license.

In 1991, on the tenth anniversary of the massacre, I stood with a tiny group of people in the tall dry grass of the empty place that had once been the busy market town of El Mozote. A majority of its residents had been conservative evangelical Christians who had refused to support the FMLN – and so the initial story manufactured for the cover-up was that the massacre was a reprisal by the guerrillas. That story eventually sank under the weight of the facts – in no small part because there had been at least one surviving witness to the attack.

That was Rufina Amaya, widow of a smallholder who was killed in the massacre, and she was standing with our group in the susurrous grass of that depression in the barren hills where there was absolutely no structure, whole or partial, remaining to indicate the former town. She began to speak about what she had seen and heard on that day in 1981, when she hid in the bushes as the army marched in and began rounding up the townspeople.

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the power of nightmares: notes from the mythic year

This essay first appeared on the the Dissident Voice webzine.

All Hallow’s Eve has come and gone, and so has the day when the dead come back for a visit, but we’re not out of the dark woods of our self-inflicted nightmare yet. The days are still getting shorter, the nights longer, as we edge toward the spooky haunted house of a national election marked, more than any in my memory, by an overwhelming sense of dread.

The obsession with the Witches’ Sabbath in a culture as denatured, as stripped of meaningful and time-bound ritual as ours is something that seems particularly perverse to me these days. Cheesy decorations started going up in the upscale neighborhoods of San Francisco in mid-September. What was that about? Why this holiday, far more than the return of spring and the celebration of human labor in May, or even the birth of the new year in the northern hemisphere at the winter solstice, the magical child, all that? It’s bizarre, and yet when you think of how much we love to terrify ourselves, how rabidly paranoid and easily spooked we are as a culture, maybe not so much.

And when you think how this year in particular, the actual shocks have mounted: from first-person mall shooters to killer cops, killer candidates, and even killer clowns… we have not made Christmas last throughout the year, as the transformed Scrooge was said to have done, instead we have come damn close to making our lives a permanent Halloween.

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fleet week, blue angels

It is a perfect October day: warm, blue-green-and-golden light poured over every scene like a potter’s glaze.

The long, green strip of the Panhandle is dotted with people at leisure: couples in each others’ arms, men and women pushing babies in strollers, drummers, cyclists, athletes, bench sitters. The constant roar of traffic is a dull and distant backdrop.

In the midst of this comes a shattering sky-filling scream, a sound that momentarily seems to take all of the surrounding air for itself, leaving you gasping. Then the jets are visible, flying like shaftless arrowheads through the air, or as if the sky were flesh on a body inside which we lived, and we could watch as some unexpected knife pierced through and ripped it open.

Through the gash left behind by the Blue Angels’ passing, other things come into view: a filthy man in rags, muttering angry curses, a child bombarding a squirrel with rocks, a wall-eyed girl beating futilely on the arms of a man pinning her down.

The screaming machines that a moment before seemed an absurd intrusion in the idyll have forced their logic on us. Once you accept that logic, you are in its sphere and you will close your eyes to anything.

What the Blue Angels’ roar eliminates, what their presence really protects us from, is the impermissible idea that our life in this world might have been wholly otherwise.

interview at the crossroads

I will try to tell you what has happened to you, says the Companion.

But before that, I’d like you to—your surroundings, your daily life; could you describe them for me? Take as much time as you want. It’s important that you remember now, even though you will see that the idea is to forget, eventually. I think the reason will become clear in time. For now, just tell me about your—self, anything you like. Anything you remember.

Eva shakes her head slightly, a twitch, as if to clear it. She reaches up with her hand, puzzled.

My hair—is loose now—I wore it—up, there… (Touching the locks that fall about her shoulders.) I had it—done, that’s the word—at a place, the same place. For a long time. In a—building. There were many of them. Long rows…

Yes, yes. Good. What else?

The buildings were tall, and made of stone and metal. And glass. There were these—engines, many of them! I moved around in them—I mean, from place to place—they took me from place to place—to get my hair—a man named—what was his name? He had very short hair himself. He did it. He said things that made me laugh. It felt good to go there. The noises were all different there: sharper, longer, louder. That was—Downtown, it was called.

Yes. And were there any birds? Did you ever hear birds?

Oh yes, I heard them. We ate them, too—not the ones we heard, I mean—there were not so many of those. Where I lived (not Downtown, a place—outside it, with smaller buildings) there were some birds. They sang. And actually that was how it first, how I first—because they were singing about—no, that isn’t right… What they were singing was here.Wasn’t it? What I mean is, it was in their singing, this place, where I am now. Because when I first began to listen…

Yes, yes…?

Not the ones we ate. They were dead too.

Yes, quite right. Well, dead, you know—isn’t exactly—we don’t—that’s to say, we just call it “other.” Because we truly don’t know about that.

Eva falls silent; birdsong and the chirring of insects pour into the stillness between her and the Companion. She looks at her surroundings: trees, shrubs, grasses, moved by the wind, gently, constantly. Clouds float above; the sky is vibrant. Its color is so intense it seems to be made of some substance other than light and air.

I can hear so many birds here, she says, wonderingly.

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the saddest prison in the world

Today I got my release papers from the Castle. Twenty years I served behind its shimmering walls, day after beautiful day, eating the finest food, drinking the best libations. Walking the silent parks under the great, dark trees. Each long, quiet day was an eternity. I was filled with dread and despair, and yet somehow I felt I would not die here. But I had begun to fear that the reason was that I had already died, and forgotten it somehow. And this was the afterlife, what some called “heaven,” and it was forever. Or perhaps I had never been alive.

But that’s what the Castle does to your mind. You stop being able to tell the difference between the living and the dead. There are others all around you, but most of them can’t see you most of the time. If you try to speak with them they frown and wince, as if there were a whining insect in their ear, or some other unpleasant thing. After a while you stop looking at them, because the blankness in their eyes is impenetrable. You stop trying to get any acknowledgment as you pass close to them in the street. I began to fling out my hands to ward them off when they came straight toward me, but my hands just passed through air.

I once read a story of a scientist who tortured a dog that he kept in a laboratory: every time it tried to leave its cage when he opened the door he would give it an electric shock. Finally when it had been shocked a thousand times or so he could leave the cage door open all the time, and the dog would simply lie inside the cage, its head on its paws, looking at the door, and never move. He left it for days without food and water, still it would not move. He had broken it. (I believe the scientist received some kind of military award for his work.)

The people in the Castle act in that way upon one another. They make you give up. Love, companionship, even the mildest amity – you can look and look but you won’t find it among them. You might as well try to befriend a rubber ball.

Whatever else you want, though, you can have. The Castle provides many pleasures. Every vista is a feast for the eyes. The air from the sea is sweet and fresh. And those pleasures are free. There are pleasures available at every price in the Castle, from low to infinite. The pleasures are all as light as air, and do nothing to make you feel alive.

I had long ago forgotten how or why I had come to the Castle. You never intend to come; you just end up here. I don’t remember now how old I was or what I was doing. The trick is that from the outside it just looks like a pretty place, where anyone might want to live. You wander in, intrigued, not realizing the Castle is built like a Venus fly-trap, and once inside you won’t find it so easy to leave again.

But I knew I would be able to leave one day. I understood it was a question of money; it’s always a question of money.

I served, I endured; I knew better than to seek release in pleasure, and so did not waste my time trying to alleviate the dullness of my existence with drugs or purchases. Every empty second yawned into eternity, but I piled them up, second after second, hour after hour, day after day, for twenty years. I grew older; everyone grows older in the Castle, although perhaps more slowly than outside. You don’t notice much outward change, you simply wake up one morning and realize that the time is gone – the time for romance, love, adventure, whatever you might have imagined life would bring. The Castle takes your time away so gently you don’t even know until it’s gone, as if your blood were being drained so gradually that all you felt was a slight fatigue that increased incrementally over time.

Then just the other day, the message came: we’ve gotten enough from you; you can leave now if you want to. Expect your papers soon.

I felt an indescribable sensation of pure joy, for one brilliant moment. And when I felt that, I knew I was still alive.

Almost immediately afterwards, however, the terror set in. Leave and go where? To do what? I knew the Castle, and how things worked here, and I was comfortable in every physical sense. I knew what each day would bring. I worked, and my work was dull, but I didn’t have to work very hard. Other than the pain of loneliness, my life was free of pain. Who was to say I wouldn’t be just as lonely outside, and suffer physical pain and deprivation too?

What would I find out there? Where would I live? How would I survive?

And today the papers arrived. I have them in my hand, and I know that if I’m to leave, I’ll have to walk away, just walk away from this place I’ve lived for twenty years, leaving everything behind, never to return. Just walk away with nothing, into an unknown world.

Now I’m standing in the doorway, with my freedom in my hand, but I can’t bring myself to step outside.

I feel only a surge of hatred for the scientist, and pity for the dog.

Or is it the other way around?

 

biophilia as extreme sport

This review first appeared on the CounterPunch and Dissident Voice webzines

The renowned biologist E.O. Wilson gave us the term “biophilia,” which he defined as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” As the world’s human population goes on expanding and walling itself up in cities, and the Sixth Extinction gathers steam, this urge is often expressed as an increasingly desperate kind of nostalgia. It drives support for conserving wild places many will never visit, as well as pastoral landscapes in which most will never work. Not to mention the proliferation of pretty floral, animal, and landscape images on our laptops and phones.

We know we’re missing something – we just don’t seem to have the time or inclination to get out there and look for it in the natural world. We turn instead to extravagant machine-made sound and light shows and other pseudo-experiences to replace the sensory and cognitive richness of the biological affiliations we’ve lost.

Charles Foster, the author of Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, is thus a something of an atavism. An English gadabout and veterinarian with Oxfordian university credentials, he has written a memoir of his gonzo-naturalist attempts not just to observe wild animals, but to live like them, to experience their world from the inside. He is not nostalgic by temperament, but his book is likely to be read by people who are. His personal antidote to our increasing disconnection from the biosphere is not one it would be likely – or beneficial, especially to the other animals – for many of us to follow.

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the listening post

dunes

This tale was published on The Dark Mountain Project blog. 

I don’t remember how old I was when I was taught to tend the listening post. The lottery was held when Good Gillem, who taught me, was an old man and ready to be replaced. All the children who were old enough to work were given a pebble; we put them in the box; mine was drawn.

So I had to leave the oasis, where the other children would work all their lives as our parents and grandparents had to shepherd the tiny spring into channels where a few fish would spawn each year among the cress and rice we planted. To tend and harvest the palms, weave their fibers into cloth, mend the screens and strengthen the mud walls. To grind the flour and bake the dry, flat bread. My work would be different from theirs. I felt sad and proud.

As I stood in the shadowed doorway of my parents’ house, ready to set out, my mother held my shoulders tightly and kissed me on the top of my head. She was not crying, but her face was twisted in sadness. We’ll see you on Year’s Day, she whispered. Be good till then. One day each year they would come to visit me, for once I was at the post, I could never leave it again.

On my shoulder I carried the little bundle she’d prepared for me. Alone I walked out beyond the storm screens, to the open desert, which I’d never seen before. I stared. Stretched before me were endless hills of red sand under the burning sky. The vastness of it made my heart jump like a netted fish in my chest. Everything I knew shrunk to nothingness before it. Carefully I followed the old markers that led over the dunes. I climbed the highest dune and looked back down on my home. The oasis looked indistinct, just a grainy shadow behind the screens, its colors, plants, and people gone. I turned my face away, twisting it as my mother had done to keep from crying, and went on.

The sand shifted and whispered around me. It was red, soft, warm, moving like a smooth-limbed body turning in its sleep. For a moment I felt tempted to leave the marked path and just walk into that great red place, join my body with its body and sleep in its softness. I thought I heard it calling me as it whispered: come and sleep with me, little one! Come and lie down in my arms! It was so great and I was so little. Why shouldn’t I do as it wanted?

Another sound woke me from my daze: the clinking of the old metal flags of the marker as I approached. I realized the sun outside the screens was too strong and it had opened a channel in my head for the whispering sand to enter. Quickly I pulled my hood up and wrapped it tight. Behind the screens I mostly forgot to wear it, unless a big storm came. I drank from my water jug until the whispering died down, and went on again.

At sunset I reached the foot of the black rock mountain, and saw the marker flashing at the entrance to the cave. Gillem waited there. He stood leaning on a great staff of knotted wood. It must have been older than he was, perhaps much older, as there were no trees from which to cut such staffs now in the oasis or any of the places we knew.

I followed him inside the cave and set down my bundle on its smooth, swept, rock floor. Gillem nodded to me in greeting but that was all. My training began at once.

He showed me the wall at the back of the cave, behind a stone outcrop that shielded it from view. Into the wall were set the devices of the listening post. They were like nothing I had seen in the oasis; I didn’t understand them at all. You don’t have to understand how they work, Gillem said. I don’t, nor has any Listener before me, as far as I know. You just have to do exactly as I show you, and the devices will sweep the skies, as they have down all the lifetimes since they were put here, for a message.

How many Listeners have there been? I asked.

I have never counted, replied Gillem. Each one keeps his archive and when he is finished, adds it to the others, to show that he has fulfilled his task. The count can be made if you want to – he waved his arm at the huge archive wall – but it would take a long time and it is easy to lose track. There’s enough to keep you busy.

And has any message ever come? I asked.

No message has ever come, he said.

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notes from the island

This story first appeared in Zahir Tales Magazine (nom de plume: Diana Swift)

by becky liddiard, http://cargocollective.com/beckyliddiard

Two Islands by Becky Liddiard – cargocollective.com

I decided to start keeping a diary today. Yes, it is ridiculous. There’s no one else to read it here, of course. Nor will there ever be, here or elsewhere, if what we believe has happened since the last Visit is true. Years have passed since then; we’ve no reason to doubt our belief. So why write anything? But I’ve decided this will be company for me, of a kind. My diary will be like the invisible friend a child has, and I had once upon a time as well. With all that has happened in my life, I don’t suppose I ever imagined I’d want an invisible friend again. But there you are. Today I do.

Lars has his music, and his solitary nature, and he has me. He never needed other company much. When he was exiled here, after the first shock, he adapted quite quickly. When I chose to follow him rather than to become one of the slave-women in the Director’s household, I, by contrast, had to relinquish my pleasure in a small society of friends, family, a circle of acquaintances. Because his preference for solitude and the sparseness of his family had not added anyone to that limited circle, the connections we lost were almost exclusively mine. I was never entirely dependent on society; in fact, I had learned to be independent of it from living with Lars. But it was still almost unbearable for a time, the loss.

It was more difficult for me, yes. But that was so long ago; it’s funny I should decide to take this up now, after twenty years of life on the island, after forgetting even to miss any other human voice, any words but his terse daily commentary. Nothing particular has happened; that’s the beauty of our situation, the strange beauty of it: we’ve grown into our routines like plants, and nothing disturbs them any more. So I really don’t know what made me do it, finally. Nothing I could name. An ancient instinct, perhaps.

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