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The Cairn War

May 1st, 2015

In my local woods, there are cairns: rock towers, more or less precariously or painstakingly balanced, maintained by passing hikers. I’m one of those maintainers. The others, if I had to guess, are a hippie couple I’ve passed once or twice on the trail, long hair, long beard, hemp clothes. I was like them once.

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The cairns follow a cycle, or so I subjectively perceive. Like the woods, they change with the seasons. They grow slowly, if at all, through most of the year. If a storm or a careless mountain biker knocks a stone awry, we maintainers will replace it. But come the end of winter there’s always an explosion of effort. I think this has to do with the melting snow, the thawing, the anticipation. There’s not much to do in the woods at the end of winter except slip on an ice patch and fall in the mud. And raise cairns. So: around March, I find new stone towers appearing where none were before. Who’s doing this, I wonder. What does it mean?

I’ve known about cairns forever. In the northeast they’re more common–if for no other reason, then because there are more rocks. Glacial processes, treeless mountain ridges over which the AT passes and there’s no place to paint the white blaze where it will stick up out of the snow, there’s always rocks. It’s practical. Less so in Michigan, where there’s nothing above treeline and you might actually have to walk ten paces to find a rock bigger than a fist.

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I didn’t become aware of cairning as an ancient human cultural institution, a ritual practice, until steph explained it to me at one of her solstice parties in Western Mass.

When Spring comes to my local woods, somebody knocks down all the cairns. Every year. The new ones and the old ones. Because I’m a lonely pseudopagan in a christian country, because I’m cynical, I assume this is an act of malice. I assume the hunters who spend all winter filling my woods with shotgun casings and beer cans for me to clean up look at my (our) cairns and see paganism, see some kind of threat. I have no evidence for this. But because I spend so much time spoiling for a fight about how yes, climate change is real and no, god didn’t give us dominion over nature so we could pave it, that’s what I see. And for a little while, it makes me sad.

Then I remember that building and rebuilding the cairns is part of the point. It’s a process, an interaction. Nothing lasts forever. We tend our gardens, they tend us. And we tend each other. As steph says:

We have created physical evidence of passing this way; and less tangibly we have left our marks upon each other – bits of spirit inspiring compelling turning and calling us on, always with the invitation to return.

So I rebuild them.

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Happy May Day.

   Angry, Environmentalism, Religion | No Comments »

Progressive Fiction

April 3rd, 2015

(what is it good for? pissing people off
making pissed off people feel better)

I have an idea for a journal of environmental justice fiction. Will I follow through with it? Time will tell, wiser heads will tell against it. Tentative title, Reckoning: a word that means variously figuring out where one is, charting a course ahead, and settling accounts for decisions made in getting here. Also a Grateful Dead reference.

When I awoke, the Dire Wolf
Six hundred pounds of sin
Was grinning at my window
All I said was “come on in”

Environmental justice? It’s where social justice and climate/environmental activism intersect. Indigenous peoples comprise only 6% of the world’s population and contribute basically not at all to climate change but suffer its effects in absurd disproportion; they also do an absurd disproportion of the work to try to stop it. Among industrialized peoples, meanwhile, access to natural resources tends to be a privilege of the rich, polarizing the demographics of climate activism over the long term–another devastating effect of institutional oppression. I grew up hiking, camping, traveling to national parks; I love nature and want to protect it. I grew up with limited access to people of other cultures and backgrounds; I had trouble understanding everything that meant, and I have to work at it constantly.

Indigenous protesters at Iximche on the eve of 13 Baktun
Indigenous protesters at Iximche on the eve of 13 Baktun

More and more, environmental justice seems to me the best way to come at climate activism, because it’s about people. People are part of nature, it’s meaningless without them, people will make or break it.

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   Environmentalism, Monumental Metaphor, Reading, Science Fiction | 10 Comments »

Gene Wolfe

August 13th, 2014

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

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

   Angry, Environmentalism, HM | No Comments »

Review: Sherwood Nation, Benjamin Parzybok

July 15th, 2014

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

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

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

“Mm, spurs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Environmentalism, HM, Reading, Science Fiction | No Comments »

Is it time yet?

April 22nd, 2014

Is it time?
Okay, yes, this is just me measuring soil temperature to see if it’s time to hunt morels (not yet!) but I think it gets the point across.

Wikipedia says Earth Day is celebrated in 192 countries. Where? By who?

This week’s Cosmos episode was about how we probably would have all died of lead poisoning if somebody hadn’t convinced the corporations…or wait, not convinced…forced the corporations to accept that the absurd lead levels in the atmosphere were their fault and were likely to kill everybody if things went on as they were. Fascinating. It took 20 years between when Clair Patterson pointed this out and when enough people accepted it to actually do something. That happened in 1984, when I was five. This–2014–was the first I’d heard of it.

Why is this not a common cautionary tale, like the bomb?

Seems to me the science about global warming has been in since at least 1991. If we consider Wallace Smith Broecker to be global warming’s Clair Patterson, the science has been in since 1975. When I was negative five. Which would make the year we were supposed to have done something about it 1995.

How long is it going to fucking take?

   Angry, Environmentalism, Fungi | No Comments »

Bamboo Phone Case

November 14th, 2013

These people offered me a free phone case if I reviewed it. At first I figured they were spammers. Then my lovely Snugg iPhone 5 Real Bamboo Wood Case came in the mail. Figured I’d better hold up my end.

bamboo phone case

The case fits snugly, with no forcing required and no wiggle room, unlike either of the last two cases I’ve used (likely because they were cheap–you get what you pay for, it seems, unless you write a review afterwards). There’s a thin layer of something velvety on the inside to facilitate sliding. The two halves fit together leaving a thin, visible seam I soon forget to be annoyed by. In the hand It feels substantial, real, and quickly becomes familiar: a cross between a cutting board and a speaker case.

Unlike my last case, this one leaves the buttons uncovered; I am pleasantly surprised to rediscover how responsive they are when not encased in glossed rubber. Holes drilled in the wood to accommodate buttons and ports are correctly placed and centered; perhaps my only real complaint about the whole thing is that, as with many, many other cases, the hole for the headphone jack isn’t wide enough to admit any of the myriad of mini stereo connectors I possess other than the one for my headphones. Unlike all those other cases, it seems not impossible that I might widen the hole in this one with an appropriately sized drill bit.

The best thing about it is that it’s not plastic. A living thing was destroyed to make this, but a living thing that will grow back, quite quickly as I understand bamboo, and it’ll sequester a little carbon in the process. Sustainable materials! At least if it’s done right. And when Apple inevitably makes the form factor obsolete in their fruitless quest for perpetual newness and I must leave this case by the wayside, it will obligingly decompose into organic matter, as opposed to merely breaking up into smaller and smaller nurdles over centuries as it passes through the digestive tracts of birds and fish that might otherwise have felt inclined to take part in the food chain.

Update: My phone gave me a splinter. I like it even more now.

Update 2: I dropped it, from a height of maybe 4 feet, and it split in three places, in such a way as to make gluing pointless, though I tried anyway. Cutting bamboo that thin has its drawbacks, apparently.

I really liked this case. Guess I get what I pay for. I used it for kindling, so at least it’s not clogging any landfills.

   Design, Environmentalism | No Comments »

Sleeping Bear

May 29th, 2013

Sleeping Bear Dunes

I spent the weekend at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and have returned with the resurgent impression that it would be more fulfilling and about a million times more effective if I laid off writing fiction and computer code and became an angry environmentalist full time. At this moment I literally would rather sit around watching my garden grow than struggle with some story that progresses at an equally glacial pace towards far less bountiful fruition. Nothing I make will be as beautiful as that which no hand hath made. Were all I’ve made to disappear, who would care?

This is not meant to be bleak or mopy. On the contrary. Thank God there is still something other than the internet.

   Angry, Environmentalism, Mountains, Summer, Transcendentalism | No Comments »

Whose Dawn?

January 14th, 2013

What by way of inertia we here came to call the end of the world, the Mayan apocalypse, I spent in Guatemala, the center of the Mayan world.

Now that the grand tidal wave of misinformation has crashed and the world didn’t end, I’ve had trouble figuring out what name to give that strange night’s vigil. “The end of the world” doesn’t work anymore. “Winter solstice” doesn’t quite cover it. The Mayans, both ancient and modern, called it 13 Baktun, or Oxlajuj Baktun, meaning simply that it represented, depending on how you want to count, either the beginning or the end of the thirteenth unit of 144,000 days since they started keeping track in 3114 BC. The Guatemalan tourism department’s propaganda machine has been calling it “the new dawn of the Maya”, plastering the words all over posters and websites like they’re a catchphrase for the latest summer popcorn doomsday movie—meaning, depending who you ask, either that it’s the dawn of a new golden age for the Maya, their culture will regain and even surpass what it achieved at its peak, its people will be respected again etc…or else that it’s merely the dawn of a new age the Maya happen to have predicted, but which is really up for grabs in terms of whose new dawn it will actually turn out to be.


Temple 3, Iximche archaeological site, Tecpán, Guatemala, half an hour before sunset, December 20th, 2012.


Temple 3 again, with ghost, wind and Orion, sometime after midnight on the 21st.

I’m not sure if anybody actually believes in the former interpretation. Certainly a lot of people are hoping for it, many of whom I heard speak or sing or pray at the ruins of Iximche in the cold, windy hours from the afternoon of the 20th through the morning of the 21st, as the sun’s last rays slipped from the surface of the altar, the moon and the constellations of the Feathered Serpent and the Seven Hundred Boys rose and set. When it came my turn to throw my candle on the sacred fire and light up the ceremonial cigar graciously provided for me by the Ministry of Sports and Culture, I prayed for that too. But I’m not holding my breath.

Smart money, sadly, must lie with the latter interpretation, which has been taken to heart by every one of Guatemala’s 28 political parties and pretty much everybody with a soap box or a chunk of rubble to lift them half a head above the crowd. A few days earlier, I happened to show up at the ruins of Zaculeu at the same moment as “next president of Guatemala” Manuel Baldizón (I strongly advise you not click that link without first turning down your computer volume), mid promo tour, solidifying his position as prophesied leader of the new era acclaimed by several local beauty queens and a half dozen white guys dressed in rented monkey and jaguar costumes. Surrounded by late Classic temples half-assedly “restored” with concrete in 1947 by the United Fruit Company, he somehow managed to keep a straight face as he promised to represent all Guatemalans, not just robber baron industrialists in geek-rimmed glasses like himself, but Quiche, Mam, Cakchiquel, even Garifuna, and to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity blah blah blah blah facepalm.


Baldizón at Zaculeu (nerd glasses, center right) with beauty queens and monkey man. Click for full size.

In case the above hasn’t made it obvious, nobody I met in Guatemala thought the world was ending. Nobody even brought it up—with the notable exception of a Korean 24-hour news reporter who interviewed me on the morning after. He asked what I was planning to do if the world actually ended. I disappointed him; I had absolutely no plans for that contingency. Hadn’t even considered it. Funny: I know exactly, down to the letter, what I’m going to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse—but the Mayan apocalypse would have caught me unawares. Good thing it didn’t happen.

He asked what I was doing there.

“I’m here,” I told him, “to find out what the real Maya think.”

Because I didn’t know. For all my research, for all the ranting I’ve done for years on this very subject, all my information has come from outsiders—white people, mostly—the kind who’ve spent decades sitting in jungle mud puzzling out fanciful interpretations of crumbling reliefs left behind by a decadent, brilliant civilization disappeared these thousand years without once looking up at the quiet, calm-eyed guide who led them here and wondering how or even if the one could have engendered the other.

Guatemala, like the US, like every other nation in the Western Hemisphere, lives with the legacy of its colonial past: a disenfranchised indigenous population, descended from those who lived there before everybody else showed up, but lacking nearly any say in what’s done with land that was once theirs. Unlike the US or any other nation in the Western Hemisphere besides Bolivia and maybe Peru, Guatemala’s indigenous population, with dozens of unique cultural groups and even more distinct languages than there are political parties, is actually the majority, yet they have if possible even less of a voice in their government and the world, less recourse to combat the appropriation of their lands, resources, and yes, their culture. Guatemala has yet to issue its indigenous peoples any casinos, if you follow me.

Perhaps you heard how in advance of 13 Baktun, Mexico banned Maya peoples from performing ceremonies at their own ancestral temples. Perhaps you wondered, like I did, why the hell anyone would do that. It didn’t take long to figure out. What bigger soapbox could the modern Mayan people hope for than the summit of an ancient Mayan temple on the day the whole world is waiting for the not-apocalypse they never predicted? If you’ve spent decades, centuries marginalizing those people, you’re probably not going to be particularly interested in letting anybody hear what they have to say. Especially if you’ve made big plans to invite a bunch of foreigners and charge them a lot of money to see the same ancestral temples, especially if those foreigners have collectively deluded themselves into thinking the Mayans whose doomsday prophecy they’ve bought into have been dead for a thousand years and at the same time developed some not very complimentary opinions about the state of your democracy.

We’re talking about countries who put ancient, jewel-bedecked Maya kings on their money. Can you see how the sight of a bunch of poor, oppressed actual Mayans might be muddying the message?

Everywhere I went in Guatemala, I saw evidence of the (overwhelmingly non-indigenous, non-Maya) government appropriating Maya cultural icons to promote tourism, validate the regime and foster a sense of national identity. In Guatemala City there’s a giant chrome and glass mall designed to look like a Mayan temple. At Zaculeu there was Baldizón, riding the crest of a populist political campaign funded by the sale of mining rights to indigenous lands in El Petén. At Iximche, while the real Maya were quietly murmuring prayers around a fire, the government carted in truckload after truckload of armed police, a stage and sound system, a garishly-painted plywood ballcourt and a bunch of white guys dressed up in feathers and beaded loincloths to reenact the ballgame to the tinny sounds of recorded birdsongs and thumping synthesized bass. Granted, at least they let the Maya people be there and take part. But there were, very clearly delineated, the fake government-sponsored prayers and the real indigenous prayers. The fake ones (amplified, with backing vocals) talked about a bright future. The real ones talked about a harried, tortured present.

And given all the bullshit about apocalypse we’ve been telling ourselves for years out here in the rest of the world, it’s those real prayers we need to hear, to remind us what’s still at risk.


Protesters at Iximche. Translation: 13 Baktun is our time, the time of the people. No to the illegal development of electric power. No to the privatization of natural hot springs. No to the privatization of communal lands. Repeal of the General Mining Law.

So. I’ve got a soapbox here, a little one. And despite being well aware of the problems involved in my being the one to tell you this, I still think it’s better if I say it than nobody.

Here, as best I can remember and in paraphrase, from a seven-page manifesto I heard read aloud in Spanish and Mam at Iximche on the first morning of the new era by a pot-belied Mam gentleman in a straw hat and scraggly black beard, is what the real Maya think.

This isn’t your new dawn, it’s ours. Stop trying to take it from us. Stop trying to profit from our culture. Instead, listen to our ancestors for a change. If you don’t want there to be a real apocalypse, stop destroying the earth. Stop damming and poisoning our rivers. Stop dumping pollutants into Lake Atitlan. Stop bulldozing our forests. Stop mining for gold. Stop evicting us from our lands. Stop massacring our people. Stop pretending like it didn’t happen. Stop pretending like we don’t exist. Archaeologists: stop saying the Maya are extinct. Let us live and speak and teach our children and practice our culture and languages in peace, or else this new Baktun will be even worse than the last one.

Update 1/31/2013: I’ve been looking for the full, real version of the above massively abridged, painfully subjective recollection. El Nubo has a printed copy, which I hope she’ll eventually post over at Cultural Survival; in the meantime, here’s an earlier edition of the same manifesto: Second Declaration of Iximche (en Español).


Zaculeu Temple 1, with flowers and ashes.

   Altars, Angry, Environmentalism, Guatemala, Religion, Trees | 2 Comments »

Hot Enough For You?

July 19th, 2012

Back from Readercon, we return you to your regularly scheduled environmentalist ranting.

I was just reading Bill McKibben‘s new Rolling Stone article about how we all got bored of global warming in 2009 but it kept happening even though we stopped looking at it and now we’re square f’ed. I’m disappointed the rhetoric isn’t firier or the content fresher—I’ve got a lot of hopes riding on that guy. The gist is predictable. Record high temperatures, oil companies hell-bent on destruction, money = speech = control = horrible juggernaut negative feedback loop of doom. Need I explain? The more we (the angry/helpless) do to discourage reckless consumption, the more expensive reckless consumption becomes, the more appealing it becomes, the more money the producers make, the better able they are to pay for control of the regulators and the regulations, the angrier and more helpless we (the angry/helpless) become.

To simplify: It gets hotter. We buy more air conditioners. Repeat.

Until I go completely nuts like Manny from Black Books.

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Urban Green Man

June 22nd, 2012

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

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


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

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