Monday, July 23, 2007

The Underlying Proposition

For some reason it's never really sunk in that the basis of the opus is kind of old hat, in a way. One of the things at the bedrock is the idea that humanity is on its way out; that our species is doomed; that the end is nigh.

There's a lot of reason to think so. When I say to people -- as I sometimes do -- that the writing is on the wall, and our species is living beyond its means so egregiously that we're doomed, they agree with me. This means that either they really feel this way or they're simply putting on the pose for my benefit, which is also quite possible.

One would have to admit that the mountains of evidence are overwhelming. These days the only people who deny global climate change, loss of biodiversity, etc have a vested interest in doing so, or are working hard to live in denial. The science on this subject seems to be extremely clear. But the fact remains that people have been saying this for a very long time. There's never been a shortage of people who see the great big cataclysm heading right towards us. Despite their convictions both the world and the humans upon it are intact.

The same could be true even now. What if all this dire glacier-melting, temperature-rising, rain-forest-falling, fisheries-depleting, and population-skyrocketing turns out to be no big deal, that the data has been read incorrectly or that we'll develop a technology that will save our asses and humanity is going to be fine? Wouldn't that be a travesty? It would mean that our species could do exactly what it wanted, with no consideration of the consequences, and still not have to be faced with any consequences. Where's the fairness in that?

Monday, July 16, 2007

D-Day for the environment

It's time for a real excerpt.
This is from Shard Three [codename: beaten] and it details the havoc wreaked by The Flood. This could be a good place to launch into a disputation about the Ark movie currently playing in the theaters, Evan Almighty. That's not for today, though; I'll just post the verse.
Hope it's not too effen long.

Throughout the Beasts' peregrinations, the skies
made them apprehensive. A soft glow caressed
the mountaintops and tallest limbs of stunted Trees.
Lightning touched a Giraffe's horns. He toppled;
his widow turned to seek an alternate,
yet his heart revived and he regained his feet.
The sky cleared its throat; resulting hail
brought low the shrubs and baby Trees.
The world was rendered in a dark palette --
the light diffused, a king banished, hiding
in the vents of clouds, glinting on bushes and stones.
The world a play, the Beasts an audience forced
upon the stage, watching storms convene.
Springs below them bubbled upwards, to bury the land;
the sky developed along a path of bitter rage,
as if the Land had deeply offended. Winds
swept the earth like minions sent to the fore.
Birds that fled their flailing perches were touched
by lightning's fingertip or brutally concussed
between the meatless palms of thunder's hands.
Waves of rain like tall Grass in the wind
grew upon the land, rejoining itself.
The water nibbled, chewed, and sucked
the soil, annexing, adding to its strength. Was it one
or many? Army made of millions or mass
amoebic? Water played leapfrog down canyons,
formed columns, made a flowing host, subsuming
the world, aided by forces that spoke with the storm.
A thousand streams burst upward; their stones mixed
with hail descending. The many worlds
that make The World perished in their fashions: deserts
drank their death; tumbleweeds flew before
the damp winds o'er plains and high rangelands.
Along the banks of rivers, supple Willows
essayed to bend and thus appease the gale,
but flowing water, overweening, stole
the motes of earth from out the smallest roots.
Bereft of their foundations, they toppled, weeping.
Immense jungle Trees came down as well,
despite their buttress roots. The scenes bespoke
of sudden invasion from a host that knew
the victory that comes without resistance.
The sluicing killer raped the upland meadows;
With boneless hands the cataracts birthed upon
the level, fertile expanses seized that good
and topmost soil. Bushes flew, and Flowers
were ripped to shreds. The fragrant Herbs
in simple gardens keened. Along the sides
of lustrous mountains, grim, arcing scythes
that gained speed felled stands of thick Bamboo.
Trees flew from earth, struck by an infinite blackjack,
cold and weighted with passive trunks become
broom-straws wrought into weapons, sweeping clean
the world. Grass-stems piped tinny screams and joined
a soup of matter. Thus the round body
went through its convulsions. As befell the plants,
so the roaring waves found the Beasts,
whose very screams of shock killed them:
into open mouths expressing chagrin flowed water
that filled their lungs -- the few who'd not died
at once lost their lives in one of many other ways.
Coyote, famed for ingenuity, now found
himself short of tricks. His flailing limbs
did nothing to prolong his life. The tiny Owls
nesting in Cactus trees chirped forlornly
as their homes toppled, the water exploring all
the little byways therein. Rattlesnakes heard
the waves from afar, pounding the arid floor.
Lifting noisy tails, the Snakes warned
whatever had dared challenge them; they died
striking the shape of water that overcame
them. Seals and well-blubbered Walrus tried
to navigate, but wind and surf combined
to smash them against the rocky shores. All
were killed: the Snails in temperate gardens; fast
and garish Lizards hidden in jungle leaves;
Cheetahs racing across veldt; Penguins sliding
on bellies as icebergs clashed around them.
Like the meat of soft fruit beneath a thumb,
the world's flesh slewed and yawed. Indeed,
the very dirt itself became a rainbow
of disordered silt; an ocher toy that spun
in spirals; a gauzy mist; a vast ghost.
The land, submerged, disresembled what
it had been before. Most regions were consumed
in mud's myriad grades. The former seas,
subsumed, held jumbled life: the Dolphins, Whales,
and sundry Fish surprised by moving surf
were snapped in half, and died terrified by the storm's dim
reflection, and smaller things encased in thick
armor, afraid and yet determined to celebrate,
for the storm met with their approval.
The streaming sheets of rising silt buried
Oyster beds, overwhelmed fields
of Grass Eels, and confused the Rock Lobsters
that walked in single file; they broke their holds
upon each others' tails and scuttled each
to safety. At first the Fish refused to stir;
the stones ground against each other like teeth
before the boulders tumbled by the storm crushed
many who'd gathered beneath; their pulped bodies made
the water thick. Yet those that fled fared no better.
Yet in certain places, due to slopes
and subtle gradients of the land, the water's flow
had taken like a gentle lover, not
a rapist, engulfing slowly; these spoke of peace,
as if preserved in crystal. The flood had been
a peaceful despot, the Beasts and Plants euthanized,
the land pacified without a mark of damage.
Where certain forest acres hung suspended,
and stilled currents kept the motes of seed
and leaf from drifting throughout the drowned woods.
Beneath a raging storm was calm, and when
at length the sun would return, after the span
of storm, the light would shine in long shafts of gold.
At length the bits of matter slowly calmed,
and lapped the base of a hill. Those that approached
endured the small fists that hammered them
and therefore couldn’t appreciate the scene.

One reason to post this now: last night I saw a really good WWII movie, "When Trumpets Fade." What a great story, like Shakespeare and the Iliad and Middle Earth and a Documentary all in one. It concerns the Hurtgen Forest battle, not D-Day, but it got me thinking and besides I'd described the above passage to Jo as reminscent of D-Day as seen in "Saving Private Ryan."

I'd suppose that the day the asteroid hit -- the one that supposedly killed off the dinosaurs -- would've been like D-Day. These days not much happens in a single day that could be called 'cataclysmic.' On the other hand, in the total time-scale of Life on Earth, the last few hundred years isn't much; we've arisen and changed things in the blink of an eye, relatively speaking. But it may seem that from our point of view we haven't been doing all that much. Sure, we lose a lot of rain forest, and for specific populations [or even entire species] a few acres of jungle falling is like the apocalypse. But in the bigger picture it's death by degrees. Reminds one of that old chestnut about the frog in the pot; throw him in boiling water and he'll bolt, but turn the heat up gradually and he'll stay and die.
Not a bad metaphor for our approach...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Gruden Box

Mailbox along a road I use for a frequent three-hour trip, and it always caught my attention. I think it was more than just the white-and-black stencilled garishness; the sound of the name stuck in my head.

It became the name of my poem's main protagonist; this is the only time I took a name off a mailbox, and I don't believe I ever went through a phone book looking for names as I've read about other writers doing, but then I've been working on the damn thing for a long time, with great big gaps between the work, and so my mind is hazy. Some names, like Prizren, I got from the current events of the day; that was in the '90s. Prizren was/is the name of a town in the Balkans that saw at least its fair share of slaughter and suchlike atrocities. Other character names came from the names of ex-girlfriends, or are altered names of writers or their characters, or are the Latin names of real animals, or are etc., etc.

In actual fact I mostly wanted an excuse to include a picture or two in the blog, but recently I found some reasons to include more of them in future posts. [And maybe some further excerpts too, even].

Anyway, Gruden is Achilles-meets-Hamlet, with the latter dominating. A previous version of that sentence included the male pronoun, yet Gruden -- like nearly all of the Termite characters -- is neither male nor female. I'm pretty sure that the great majority of the eusocial insects feature workers and soldiers that are non-reproductive, and in the convenient shorthand of our world that means that they're genderless. Therefor my epic utilizes gender neutral pronouns for these characters. I've opted for "seu," and its forms "seul" for possessive and "seult" for nominative. At least I think that that's the correct term of the case: stands in for "him/her." Though I teach English in its forms for a living, I've never studied ESL and consequently learned my mother tongue the way that most have; without knowing the jargon, meaning the names of the different components beyond the parts of speech.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Some more feedback

Though this isn't much of a big revelation, I thought I'd send it out into the void....

I spoke with a friend -- Jo -- about a week ago about the work. She'd had a bunch of pages for some time, and when I got to her place the pages had a lot of comments and questions all over them. It's really heartening to see that. She asked me to explain a few things about what I'm trying to do, and as I explained the themes I've got, well, it flowed out of me nicely. So I guess I'll try to recapture that here.

I've taken the Noah's Ark myth and adapted it so that I can talk about what most interests me, which is the "mythological aspect," for lack of a better phrase, of: ecology and the environment; humanity's horrific impact on same; evolution; etc. I can't claim to be deliriously happy with my choice of original inspiration -- even when I started the project I felt that the biblical Flood Narrative is overused and a little trite [the recent movie with Steve Carell only highlights this, and deserves its own post].

Yet it's this particular tale that best suits my needs. The same is true of the central plot device: the backbone of my story is that the Termites eat the Ark. As before, this sometimes strikes me as a really overly-predictable and trite plot device, but everything I'm trying to do hinges on this choice that these characters make. They make their choice for two reasons: first, because they [feel that they] have no other choice given the circumstances, and second because it's their primary function to consume. It's the same for our species, and it's led us to the world we live in right now.

Though I could ramble on regarding the human situation here in 2007, it's back to the work at hand. In my story the world ends several times, but each ending is simply a transition to the next thing. If we look at the fossil record as interpreted by paleontologists, we see a series of mass extinctions (and if we look at that same history from the point of view of an artist, we might well think of different themes; ideas; attempts; paradigms; each tried out for a time and then discarded). There seems to have been five of these, and we are currently living in the sixth. What makes this one unique is that this is the first one to be caused by a single species of life, as opposed to, say, impact from an asteroid...
But in each previous case, when up to 90% of life on the planet was destroyed, enough was left to carry on. And what came next was completely unlike what had been before the event. In the current case, we won't be killing off quite that large a percentage, but it still might well be enough to ensure our own demise.

But again, I digress. The course of my tale thus mirrors what happens in Nature. There are other themes, but this is a big one: redemption through evolution. And, moreover, play as expressed through the medium of organisms. Now sure, some may say that this kind of talk is ripe for accusations of "Intelligent Design." I'm not sure of how to respond to that; on the one hand, I find ID to be an amusing, even pleasing notion because it helps me in some way to make sense of the universe. This follows the Vonnegut model propounded in "Cat's Cradle," wherein religion is a bunch of lies [read: a story] that makes one feel better. Well ID is just that bunch of lies for me, and perhaps for others too.

On the other hand, it seems clear that ID is most likely a sneaky tool created and manipulated by those who would seek to introduce some faith-based quasi-Christian thinking into public-education and general discourse, thereby displacing the good ol' rationality and egalitarianism embodied in the more neutral scientific-method approach. This is troubling of course. Not only do I have no problem with scientific thinking, but hey it's quite useful in many cases, and has gotten us out of some jams. (Gary Trudeau did one or two great strips on this topic in Doonesbury -- a doctor has to tell his patient about the fact that an infection has evolved in response to the drugs administered. I wish I'd kept a URL for that particular strip.) The fact that some of the craftier Jesus-heads may well be using ID for their own political ends is regrettable and unhelpful, but then people will tend to be disappointing sometimes, won't they?

As a consequence to this perceived attack on evolution, parts of the scientific community are lashing back, to the result that one who may wish to point out to patterns in nature may find himself in a duck-and-cover kind of place. I've got this group of essays I've been fooling with for several years now, and they focus on the recurrent themes found throughout Nature. I'd like to see them published -- or at least like to start sending them out there -- but I haven't researched the markets much, and I'd dislike the prospect of having to defend my views against those with better debating skills than myself.

Jo said she'd like to see more of the epic, which is great and I'm happy to oblige [I may well be reading some of her stuff too]. I told her what I've told others, which is that the sad thing about writing an epic poem is that it's the literary equivalent of an edible insect business. Meaning that it's completely unmarketable.

Or maybe it's just a longshot.....