Reckoning Reckoning

Hey! How are you? I hope you’re weathering all this horribleness okay (and if you’re not, please let me know if I can do anything to help).

It’s been awhile, I know. Time for an update.

I’ve been neglecting the Mossy Skull in favor of a certain publishing venture I’ve embarked on. If you’re here, you may have heard of it. Reckoning is an annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice. I started on it last July; the first issue came out in December. The submission deadline for the second issue is the autumnal equinox, September 22nd.

A preliminary, non-final version of the cover for the print edition of Reckoning 1
A preliminary, non-final version of the cover for the print edition of Reckoning 1

It’s going well, I think. I’m learning. I’m paying reasonably good money for amazing work that might not have found a home otherwise, or at least not earned its creator quite as much. I’m getting to know some of those creators a little, by interviewing them and working with them. Some of them are getting to know each other. It’s even possible that at right this very moment someone is making something beautiful and thoughtful they might not have made if Reckoning didn’t exist. And of course I hope somebody somewhere is reading it all and being amazed and inspired.

But it’s a hard thing to assess as a whole, at this early stage.

I’m trying hard not to be glib.

“Reckoning” is, I think, a lovely word with quite a breadth of applicability; I feel like I see it used more and more these days, partly as a result of the ascendancy of a certain gumball-colored sociopath, but also it seems it’s the way the collective consciousness of the human race was already going. We’re being asked to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions, or the lack thereof. We’re trying to figure out what that responsibility looks like. This is what I wanted Reckoning to be about. But it becomes clear that publishing Reckoning and a reckoning with my own life and choices are separate undertakings, and one can’t take precedence over the other.

Here, then, by way of an update, and hopefully as a stopgap for the ongoing benign neglect I expect this blog to suffer for a good while yet, is how I’ve been reckoning of late.

  • I moved away from my huge, loving family and the elite liberal socialist utopia of Massachusetts for the post-industrial, post-working-class kleptocracy of Southeast Michigan. I did this for economic reasons: it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to live here, because no one wants to. Plus my wife got a very good job for the equivalent of which on the east coast competition would have been prohibitive. We were able to make this move at all only because of our privilege. We’re white; we have expensive east coast liberal educations and loving family with the long-term economic benefits of same. And I am aware of this privilege, the extent of it, only because I moved here. The distance allows me to see the stratification of this country for what it is. Did I start Reckoning because of it? Yeah, probably.
  • I bought a hundred-year-old former church parsonage for one fifth what the equivalent would have cost in the Boston suburbs where I grew up, and therefore could afford to outfit it with solar panels despite active discouragement from my new state and energy utility. I’ve had them for three years and am nowhere near earning back my investment.
  • I converted my barren food desert of a lawn to a permaculture food forest: apple and cherry trees, elderberry bushes, blackberry brambles, native grapes, hops, asparagus, nettle, strawberries.
  • I wrote, workshopped and revised a novel. I sent it out to a few agents, then got too wrapped up in Reckoning to follow through, and now it languishes.
  • I leased an electric car and spent a few months convincing my utility to let me plug it into the solar panels.
  • I guest-edited an environmental-themed issue of a respected literary zine. I liked it so much I started my own.
  • I spent a year reading diverse fiction.
  • I joined my local government. I volunteer on my town’s environmental resources committee, trying to convince a bunch of working-class white Republicans to recycle. It sucks.
  • I voted for Hillary.
  • I sold a story to BCS, a weird western set in turn of the (twentieth) century Michigan, stuffed full of references to the Grateful Dead and the Great American Songbook. It comes out in July or thereabouts. Apparently I also get to read the podcast.
  • Speaking of podcasts, Far Fetched Fables will be running “Asleep in the Traces” sometime soon.
  • I gave a bunch of money to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Center and etc.
  • I bake a loaf of sourdough bread once a week. Lately it has flax seed, brewer’s yeast and honey.
  • I called my congressman (Mike Bishop, R, Michigan 8th district) a bunch of times, about a lot of things, to no noticeable effect.
  • I brewed a lot of beer, cider, and mead, using ingredients I grew or foraged wherever possible. I drink it with help from my friends.
  • I did my taxes. I did Reckoning‘s taxes. Still waiting for my application for 501c3 status to come back from the IRS. Any day now.
  • I secured help with Reckoning from an amazing and far-flung editorial staff.
  • I had a kid, and now am in the process of adapting to his sleep patterns, while also learning about the fascinating hallucinatory and life-shortening effects of insomnia.
  • I’m out in the woods and fields and brooksides pretty much every day.
  • I loved and appreciated my family and my friends.

So that’s some kind of tally, anyhow. Something on the way to a reckoning? I don’t know, it never feels like enough. But I guess that’s what life is.

Cheers, peace, love, solidarity, as I’ve begun signing all my emails. See you around.

Michael

Decay

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It’s funny how things come around.

Many years ago now, fresh off the nihilistic high of selling a series of brutal sixgun-and-sorcery stories about centaurs conquering the West to Beneath Ceaseless Skies, I got the idea for something even darker and more sardonic, a story about horribly downtrodden, poor and desperate human beings, trapped by oppression and circumstance, using the most awful means at their disposal to grasp at a shred of personal agency and self-determination. And I did it. It didn’t make me feel particularly good about myself, but I wrote it. “Decay”, it’s called. This was not like anything else I’d written nor am likely to again. It’s an incredibly dark, bitter story. No, not like chocolate. Let me be completely honest: I wrote a story about shit. Maybe the only shred of lightness about it is a thread of humor so black it’s practically psychedelic.

But, I thought, it’s powerful. So I shopped it around.

And it got rejected. A lot. A few times, for months, years, I pulled it from circulation, thinking this is just too awful, too disgusting, nobody was going to buy it and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see it in print. But every once in awhile, I’d get in a dark mood and send it out again.

Fast forward to twenty sixteen. Andrew Fuller of Three-Lobed Burning Eye has decided to take a chance on it. And I do think he’s taking a risk; I told him so. He seemed convinced–more convinced than I was. I admire him for that. Me, I even thought about taking my name off it.

So now in this, the first week of November, just when a lot of people are looking forward with dread to the awful, disgusting, unconscionable thing that just might actually happen one week from today, “Decay” is out in the world.

And I went and read the story again, just to remind myself of what I’d committed to. And suddenly, astonishingly, it seems like there just might be a redeeming message in there somewhere after all. I’m thinking in this context, maybe that blacker-than-black sense of humor might actually look brighter than I thought.

There’s a place for catharsis.

Or, to think of it another way: if it’s a choice between helplessness and taking the only other option available to stop the world from turning to shit…as for some of us it seems to be….

Some Tentative Explorations into the Genus Boletus

Last year around this time I poisoned myself, rather severely but not life-threateningly, with a mushroom by the name of Boletus sensibilis. A surprising amount of hilarity ensued. People love to hear that story; I will never live it down, and I can’t say I feel bad about that. It’s a story I enjoy telling, a cautionary tale, and something not a lot of people have or hopefully will experience.

However, it has had the inevitable side-effect of making people doubt my mushroom hunting erudition and caution. Believe me, both have improved dramatically as a direct result of poisoning myself. But I expect I’ll spend the rest of my life combating that judgment. And that’s fine, well and good. Don’t eat wild mushrooms unless you know what the fuck you’re doing.

To that effect, this summer I have undertaken a hands-off study of genus Boletus, a rather large class of mushrooms that distribute spores through a porous membrane rather than laterally separated gills. I don’t expect to be eating much in this genus ever again; among the people whose faith in my skills at positive taxonomic identification I have permanently shattered is my wife, who forbids me from eating any mushrooms I haven’t previously eaten without poisoning myself. I can still look. I can touch and smell. I can learn.

First, the easy ones.

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Strobilomyces strobilaceus, the old man of the woods mushroom. Found on the North Country Trail, Newaygo County, MI. A hard mushroom to mistake, and yet I learn it has three subspecies distinguishable only through microscopic identification of spores. All three, as I understand it, are edible only when very young, otherwise rather unappetizing.

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Boletus edulis, aka porcini, like you’d find in the grocery store, this one again found on the NCT in West Michigan. A rather aged specimen, though lovely, as you can tell by the bug-eaten decay in the cross-section. I am surprised to learn that there are not actually very many species of buff to tan, white-pored boletes, mycorrizal with mixed deciduous and evergreen woods, fruiting in late summer in the American northeast. And all of them appear to be choice edibles. Not that I would know.

Now on to the scary, confusing, variously blue-staining, variously poisonous red and yellow boletes, at which my gorge rises Lovecraftian despite their beauty.

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Baorangia (formerly Boletus) bicolor? var. borealis? This is (perhaps) the mushroom I thought (hoped) I was eating when I poisoned myself. Found a mile from my house in Bald Mountain Recreational Area, Oakland, MI. Beautiful soft creamy flesh, smells wonderfully of something very much like Indian yellow curry, tastes…well, I’ll never know. But delicious, they tell me.

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Boletus sensibilis, aka the Brick-Red Bolete? The one that poisoned me. Maybe. Or maybe it’s another variation of bicolor. Beautiful thing, isn’t it?

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Boletus flammans? or etc. Note red pore surface and blue coloration in pore cross-section, which came on almost as soon as I sliced into it. Here we have the trouble. There are just too many of them, with too much commonality of season and habitat, too much commonality of color and form factor, too much variety of color and form factor depending on age and habitat.

For example:

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Boletus subvelutipes, the red-mouth bolete. Or not. Just look at that monster’s deadly, blue-stained jaws.  I feel like a mouse hypnotized by a snake. How could I not be fascinated? After an experience like that, how could I not want to learn more?

Now I’m going to go donate some money to Michael Kuo, whose website is dauntingly detailed about all this and makes very clear what a vast and complex discipline is mushroom identification, and at which I have probably spent more time this month than facebook.

In conclusion: I need a microscope.

Also, here’s that caveat again:

Don’t eat any mushrooms you find in the woods unless you really, seriously know what you’re doing or have someone with you who does. Don’t come crying to me if you do and it doesn’t work out. If you do, and it doesn’t work out, and you find yourself violently expelling the entire contents of your digestive system, go to the hospital. You’ll live, and if nothing else you’ll have a very interesting story.